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Sister gives brother new life after donating stem cells (w/ video)

By Elena Watts
Nov. 21, 2013 at 5:21 a.m.
Updated Nov. 25, 2013 at 5:25 a.m.

Vincent Lara, of Freeport, sits in his mother's home in Victoria with his nieces, Jaylynn Flores, 13, left, and Ava Flores, 7, during a family Thanksgiving get-together before he was admitted into MD Anderson for multiple myeloma treatment in Houston.

Vincent Lara's family celebrated an early Thanksgiving this year.

The 47-year-old Victoria native will be at MD Anderson Cancer Center on the official holiday. His stem cells were killed with four days of intense chemotherapy and replaced by his sister's Nov. 18.

"My wife told my nurse that it's all right that I miss Thanksgiving this year as long as she gets at least 10 more," he said.

In 2011, doctors diagnosed Lara with an aggressive form of multiple myeloma, or bone marrow cancer.

However, the symptoms began months earlier.

Lara's hip ached as he pedaled his bicycle between the construction crews he supervised at ConocoPhillips in Freeport.

The pain moved to his back and prevented the avid fisherman from casting his fishing line. Limping soon followed.

"I was achy but forced it until I couldn't do it anymore," he said. "I felt a sharp pain when I swung a hammer."

Lara quit school in the seventh grade, said his wife Susana Lara, 49. He learned through experience and worked his way up the ranks.

"He was at the peak of his career as a supervisor," she said. "Things were just the way they should be when doctors said he had multiple myeloma."

Lara was a father at 17 and weathered a few rough patches with his wife when they were young. They had four children before they reached this chapter of their lives.

Lara's doctor found the first mass on his right hip. A scan of his entire body found three more masses on his spine.

After a round of intense chemotherapy, Lara had his first stem cell transplant using his own cells Dec. 5, 2012.

A bone marrow biopsy following the procedure revealed the cancer was not in remission. Lara began outpatient chemotherapy to keep the cancer at bay, but it began to grow again in February.

Lara's two sisters were tested to determine whether their stem cells were a match for their brother. His youngest sister, Vanessa Flores, 35, was a perfect match, while Annette Sanchez, his older sister, was a 50 percent match.

"Vanessa was born so late," Susana Lara said. "Now we know she was supposed to come along to save her big brother's life."

Hospital policies vary, but peripheral stem cells extracted from blood are used from related siblings who are a perfect match at MD Anderson, said Michelle Trapp, lead transplant coordinator at MD Anderson.

Had the less-than-perfect match from his older sister been Lara's only option, the cells would have been extracted from her bone marrow, a more invasive procedure.

"I like to be the one giving," Vincent Lara said. "It throws me off, feels odd, to be receiving."

Flores injected neupogen into her stomach and legs for four days before her stem cells were harvested. The medication stimulated excess growth of bone marrow cells.

"I was achy with flu-like symptoms, and my bones were sore," Flores said. "That meant it was working."

For two days, the apheresis machine spun off the needed cells in four-hour sessions through a port in Flores' leg.

Her brother needed 5 million cells, and she gave him 11 million, Trapp said.

"It was such a blessing that I could do that for my brother," Flores said.

Lara must remain in the hospital 18 to 21 days after the surgery, which is the time it takes for the cells to mature, Trapp said.

A third transplant is an option if Lara's cancer does not go into remission, though health insurance coverage could be an issue.

"Vincent will have a brand-new birthday," Susana Lara said. "He'll have Vanessa's cells."



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