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Moral use of stem cells helps woman halt her cancer

By Kate Blain
Assistant Editor

East Tennessee Catholic
Diocese of Knoxville

December 25, 2005

Opponents of embryonic stem-cell research often point out that using adult stem cells to treat disease is morally acceptable and has shown results.

Pat Picher of Saratoga Springs believes she's living proof of that.

Diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 1999, she was treated with adult stem cells harvested from her own body.  In January, she will celebrate three years of remission from her cancer - the benchmark after which doctors predict that cancer will not return.

"Then I'll start planning my trip to Hawaii." Mrs. Picher declared.

Chemotherapy

A homemaker whose husband, Deacon Gary Picher, serves at two parishes and two hospitals in the Albany Diocese - Notre Dame-Visitation in Schuylerville, St. Joseph's in Greenwich. Albany Medical Center and Saratoga Hospital -Mrs. Picher was shocked to learn in the fall of 1999 that she had cancer.

Initially, she underwent standard chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system (which produces white blood cells)

She was told that if the cancer didn't recur in three years, it probably would not come back. Two-and-three-quarters years later, it did. This time, Mrs. Picher was given a much harsher form of chemotherapy - and was surprised when told that she would be a good candidate for stem-cell therapy.

Donating to self

Mrs. Picher likened her treatment, using adult stem cells, to "a bone marrow transplant, but there's no donor."

Instead, she said she had a special catheter put into her neck then received a series of shots that caused her stem cells to be released from her bone marrow and circulate in her bloodstream. Next, she was hooked up to a machine that performed a task similar to kidney dialysis: It filtered ten million stem cells from her blood.

PAT PICHER has felt peaceful about the outcome of her treatment ever since she saw relics of St. Therese of Lisieux, the "Little Flower,' which were brought to the Albany Diocese in 1999. As soon as I touched [the reliquary], I thought, Oh, everything's going to be all right," she remembered.

Half the cells were frozen for possible future use, while the other five million were kept for the next phase of Mrs. Picher's treatment.
She received high-dose chemotherapy to bring her white blood cell count down to zero: then her own stem cells were returned to her body through an IV.

"And that was it: she explained." Then you wait for the stem cells to 'take: and your white blood cell count to go back up."

Many cancer patients struggle with the side effects of chemotherapy - nausea, vomiting, hair loss and more - but Mrs. Pincher experienced no side effects except exhaustion.

A quilter who occasionally teaches classes in the art, she added: "I appliquéd two queen-sized quilts in the time I was [in treatment]!"


Moral decision

Mrs. Picher believes that if the use of embryonic stem cells had been proposed, she would have looked at other treatment options instead.
"I believe it is morally wrong." she said of using living human embryos to retrieve stem cells. "From what I've been reading, there really is no solid proof that [embryonic stem cell use] does much of anything. There's much more progress with adult stem cells. The media feel, for some reason, that they should glorify the embryonic thing and there's no medical basis to do so."

Since umbilical cord blood is also rich in stem cells and retrieving the cells from born infants does not involve taking human life. Mrs. Picher would like to see more scientific interest in cord blood. "Babies are being born all the time: it's a readily available source" of stem cells, she said.

Keeping faith

Two years after her adult stem-cell replacement, Mrs. Picher is focusing on quilting encouraging cancer patients who call her for advice and waiting for her three-year remission deadline to arrive.

"Some days, I feel like I'm living on needles and pins, because this was the point [last time] where the cancer came back." she noted. "But I never lost faith. What's going to happen is going to happen and you can't do anything about it except pray."

(Bishop Howard Hubbard recently wrote an in depth column about the morality of stem-cell use: stem-cell use: find it at www.evangelist.org.)

 

Bernardin O'Connor Award


 

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