Cancer Patient Receives Successful Stem Cell Transplant Just in Time to Graduate

jenna mckeown
Photo provided by Jenna McKeown

Jenna McKeown graduated from high school months after having a stem cell transplant.

jenna mckeown nurse
Photo by David Christopher

Oncology nurse Laticia Mitchell, RN, CPON
By Kadesha Thomas and John Easton

Jenna McKeown made sure to bring plenty of tissues to the movie theater. Her group of friends would never be able to sit dry-eyed through "My Sister’s Keeper," a film about a teenager with cancer and the dramatic steps her mother, played by actress Cameron Diaz, took to keep her alive. Parts of the movie resonated with Jenna: She was a high school senior, planning to study nursing in college next year. Maybe she’d specialize in oncology, possibly working with children.

She had no idea that two months later, her life would seem as if the camera had pivoted 180 degrees, putting 17-year-old Jenna front and center. In October 2009, Jenna was in Edward Hospital and Health Services, near her home in Naperville, Illinois, with badly bruised legs and bleeding gums. Blood test results showed that her platelets were around 30,000 per microliter, though normal range starts at 150,000. And her white blood cell count was more than 65,000 per microliter, significantly higher than the normal count of 4,500 to 10,000. Before she knew the diagnosis, Jenna remembered the sickly girl from the movie and thought: cancer.

When Charles Rubin, MD, walked into the room, his demeanor confirmed her feeling. He asked Jenna and her parents to sit down, looking like the news crushed him as much as it would them. “It looks like leukemia,” he said, apologetically.

Jenna’s form of acute myeloid leukemia, known as M5, causes white blood cells to reproduce uncontrollably. Rubin, also associate professor of pediatrics at Comer Children's Hospital at the University of Chicago, arranged for Jenna to meet with oncologist Jennifer McNeer, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics. When test results showed that she was a candidate for a stem cell transplant, John Cunningham, MD, chief of pediatric hematology/oncology, joined Jenna’s medical team.

Oncology nurse Laticia Mitchell, RN, CPON, administered Jenna’s first round of chemotherapy in November, 2009. The treatment lasted one month and sapped her energy, making her sleep at least 18 hours a day. Then, there was the bleeding. A nosebleed was so profuse that Jenna still wakes up startled from nightmares that it’s happening again.

“Jenna kept smiling and saying she was okay, but I told her, ‘It’s okay to say you feel like crap,’” said Mitchell, who won the Award for Nursing Excellence in a Pediatric Inpatient Area during Nurses Week 2010. The two became so close that Mitchell made a point to visit Jenna even when she was assigned to other patients. “She just had this will to fight and wouldn’t let anything get her down. She would even talk to my younger patients and give them encouragement during treatment.”

After more chemotherapy and 55 blood transfusions, the final step of treatment was a stem cell transplant. The chemotherapy could eradicate the remaining traces of cancer, but it also would kill the bone marrow cells required for a strong immune system. The transplanted cells could replace the lost bone marrow and take over the job of making a new immune system.

The McKeowns found a matching bone marrow donor in the national registry. By the end of May 2010, Jenna was back in school, just in time to finish her senior year. With prom coming up, she decided to go to physical therapy with one purpose — “I wanted to be able to walk in heels,” she said. That proved even more useful when she was elected prom queen and received a standing ovation as she crossed the stage at graduation.

This fall, she plans to study nursing and pediatric oncology at St. Mary's College, a Catholic liberal arts college in Notre Dame, Indiana. Her goal is to inspire other children battling cancer.