When Mrs Pooja Kawatra Gupta donated her son's cord blood in 2008, she did not realise the magnitude of her decision. A year later, she was diagnosed with blood cancer. One option was for her to go for a stem cell transplant using cord blood. But Mrs Gupta, 36, was able to overcome cancer with several cycles of chemotherapy.
It all started when Mrs Gupta was pregnant with her first child and she and her husband Nikhil were at KK Women's and Children's Hospital for a routine check-up. An executive from the Singapore Cord Blood Bank (SCBB) approached them and shared with them cord blood banking and donation options.
Said Mrs Gupta: "At that time, we didn't know anything about cord blood banking and donation so we did research online and learnt the importance of donating cord blood, which can help patients who have cancers such as leukaemia and lymphoma and may require a stem cell transplant." Haematopoietic stem cell transplant involves the intravenous infusion of stem cells collected from bone marrow, peripheral blood, or umbilical cord blood.
According to SCBB, in Singapore, every year, about 40 to 60 per cent of patients who need such a transplant to survive are unable to find a suitable stem cell match from bone marrow donors and other public cord blood banks. This is because only one in four patients can find a match among siblings. Patients are more likely to find a good stem cell match among donors from their own ethnic group.
The couple, who are both permanent residents here, then decided to donate their son's cord blood when they found out how it could save someone's life.
Things were going well for them and they were particularly excited with the arrival of their first-born Aayan. Said Mrs Gupta, who is from Delhi: "I was a young parent, we had just started our family and everything was going well."
Diagnosed with blood cancer
But things took a turn for the worse in January 2009. When Aayan was eight months old, Mrs Gupta was diagnosed with stage two non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a blood cancer. It started with a persistent cough coupled with weight loss. However, the couple thought that she was losing post-pregnancy weight and did not think much of it.
When the cough did not go away after a month, they sought a few doctors' opinions and were initially told that Mrs Gupta had tuberculosis. She was given medicine for it but it made her condition worse. The doctors then carried out a scan and biopsy and found out that she had a tumour in her chest.
The family of three then went to India to seek treatment for Mrs Gupta. "We went back to Delhi to stay with my parents and parents-in-law so they could help take care of Aayan. It was also cheaper for us to seek treatment there," she said. At that time, Mr Gupta was working in Barclays in Singapore but managed to move to the branch in Delhi. Mrs Gupta left her job as an assistant manager at Aon Singapore when she learned about her cancer.
Initially, she went through six cycles of chemotherapy at the Rajiv Gandhi Cancer Institute and All India Institute of Medical Science in Delhi. However, scans showed that "there was some residue of the cancer left". A few doctors told her that the last resort would be a stem cell transplant. "They explained the process of such a transplant and it sounded like a painstaking and complex process. We sought more doctors' opinions and they told us we could try a higher dosage of chemotherapy instead of the transplant."
Mrs Gupta opted for that and underwent three more cycles of chemotherapy, completing her treatments in August 2009. The following year, she was given the all-clear and went into remission.
Unlike Mrs Gupta, many patients with blood cancers or blood disorders are unable to opt for other treatment options and rely on haematopoietic stem cell transplant, as their only hope and chance of survival.
SCBB's medical director Dr William Hwang said: "It is extremely rare for donors like Pooja who had donated her baby's cord blood to SCBB, to also be diagnosed with the same medical condition that she had so selflessly hoped to save. It was due to this experience as a blood cancer survivor that she was even more convinced of the importance of the public cord blood bank."
In 2013, she conceived her second child Kaira. Although Mrs Gupta wanted to donate Kaira's cord blood, she was unable to do so this time because of her medical history. "We (Nikhil and I) were keen to donate it again because we could really relate to it as I had gone through cancer. If someone needed the cord blood like how doctors told me it could be my last resort, then my cord blood would be able to save someone's life."
Couldn't donate again
Though she was unable to donate Kaira's cord blood, she used the online blog called Mums & Babies that she started in 2010 to raise awareness on cord blood donation. She spoke to an executive from SCBB and shared with her about her blog.
"At that time, cord blood banking was relatively new and not many people knew about it in Singapore, so SCBB started a few contests on its Facebook page. I shared the contests on my blog and linked it to the SCBB website so parents who were visiting my blog could learn about cord blood donation too."
Said Mrs Gupta: "Parents don't lose anything by donating their baby's cord blood. The little step you take will go a long way in providing a life to someone. Patients who need transplants would have a much better chance of finding a suitable match."
As a cancer survivor, Mrs Gupta also volunteers at events by the Singapore Cancer Society to raise funds for patients.
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