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How one patient’s diagnosis turned into a life’s mission

Jennifer Leal is the picture of health. She works full time. She loves staying active. And she’s a passionate advocate for things that matter to her—like Be The Match®.

But her advocacy didn’t start with this much strength. In October 2017, Jennifer started feeling sick with flulike symptoms. Within a matter of hours, her achiness progressed significantly and she knew something was wrong. 

At the walk-in clinic, Jennifer described chest pains and breathing trouble, but chest x-rays revealed nothing of concern. “I knew something was wrong, so I asked for blood work to be done too,” Jennifer said. It’s a good thing she did because that afternoon she received a call urging her to get to the hospital immediately. She was later diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia .

After four rounds of chemotherapy, Jennifer’s leukemia went into remission then back to work. But after she relapsed, the doctor told her a blood stem cell transplant was her best chance for a cure.

“At the time, I wasn’t very familiar with the donor registry process, but I just assumed I’d have a match,” she said. It turned out she only had three viable matches on the registry. To her surprise, her doctor called her “lucky” because many patients have zero. “I drove home very scared and decided that moment that I wanted to raise awareness about the registry,” she said.  

While having three potential donors sounds promising, a patient-donor match doesn’t guarantee the donor will go on to donate. Jennifer’s first match initially declined. The second said yes, but was deemed ineligible after a follow-up physical. And the third said yes, but was also unsuitable to donate.

Jennifer went from having three full matches—to suddenly having none. “I was horrified,” she said. “I felt like I had no chance.” Luckily, the first match decided to move forward with the donation and today Jennifer’s healthy and back to herself. In February she celebrated her three-year transplant anniversary and shows no sign of slowing down on her mission to raise awareness about the Be The Match Registry®.

While her story’s still emotional to talk about, she uses it as an opportunity to support the cause and share news about the registry process. She hosted a celebration of life for her 50th birthday to raise awareness and money for Be The Match. And her daughter sells handcrafted items through Etsy, donating proceeds to Be The Match.  

Additionally, Jennifer’s a certified legislative advocate with Be The Match, advocating for legislation to support patients. She also builds awareness through her workplace and recently won a storytellers contest sponsored by Target and the Pennsylvania Conference for Women. 

“When I asked my transplant team why I have a few matches and why everyone doesn’t, I learned about the lack of awareness and ethnic disparity on the registry,” she shared. “I thought, why should someone from another background have less of a chance to live? I felt like this was one way I could help.” 

And help she does—in a big way.

The cure for blood cancer is in the hands of ordinary people® like you. Learn ways you can support the cause—and save lives— like Jennifer.