ATLANTA - Megan Patton plants a small white flag. It’s one of 5,000 now lining the lawn of the Emory School of Medicine in Atlanta. Each represents a bone marrow transplant patient at the Winship Cancer Institute at Emory University. One represents Megan, diagnosed with cancer the first time at 19.
"It was a complete and total shock,” Patton remembers. “I was starting my sophomore year of college, and actually found a lump and got it checked out. The last thing I was expecting was leukemia."
Not just leukemia, but AML, or acute myeloid leukemia, an aggressive cancer of the blood and bone marrow. Megan's best chance was a bone marrow transplant.
"This is going to sound crazy,” she says. “But, I was scared of having a transplant. So, I was almost praying I would not find a donor. But my little sister ended up being a match."
The process of using chemotherapy to wipe out the cancer, and then “rebooting” her immune system with her sister’s healthy cells, was grueling.
"It was worse than I thought it would be,” Patton says. “Yeah, it was really hard."
The transplant worked, sending her leukemia into remission. But a year and a half later, Megan relapsed, and needed yet another bone marrow transplant.
"It was almost worse knowing what I was in for,” she says. “But, I was kind of the attitude of, 'Well, this is my last chance, and I'm going to give it everything I have.'"
It's a story replayed 5,000 over the last 35 years at Winship. In 1979, the cancer center performed its first bone marrow transplant, just one that year. Today, Winship performs more 450 a year, for everything from leukemia and lymphoma to multiple myeloma and sickle cell anemia.
Dr. Edmund Waller, Director of the Bone Marrow Transplant Center, says they’ve made enormous progress in bone marrow transplantation over the last three decades.
“We know better how to identify the best donor,” Dr. Waller says. “We know how to administer chemotherapy more safely, how to get people out of the hospital quicker, and get them back to their families and back to work.
Dr. Waller was also Megan Patton’s oncologist.
Standing alongside the field of flags, Dr. Waller says he feels humbled and honored.
"Megan is someone we struggled with, to get her through the transplant and cure her leukemia,” Dr. Waller says. “She's cured. But, she suffered along the way, and I was with her through that journey."
Today Megan is 8-years out, married to her college sweetheart who stood by her through her cancer treatment.
And, she’s now cancer nurse, working on Winship Cancer Institute’s Bone Marrow Transplant Unit, where she was once treated.
"It's been amazing,” Patton says of her life now. “ I really feel blessed to be in the position to help patients. Because I remember, I remember how much it helped me to see patients who had gotten through it."
Today is about honoring the journey from cancer patient to survivor, and the people still fighting.
Megan Patton's little white flag flies as a reminder of a second chance -- she never thought she'd get.
"I feel extremely honored,” she says "I trusted these people with my life. My doctors. The nurses here are incredible."