If life is a highway, Luba Banuke paid tribute to her most recent milestone by going sky to sea, celebrating her 70th birthday Monday with a hike atop Whistler Mountain and then following up later with a dip in the ocean at Port Moody to cool down.We should all be so active entering our eighth decade but what makes Banuke’s story remarkable is 12 years ago she was told she had terminal blood cancer, the rare T-cell lymphoma, and only a couple of years to live.She has Steve, a pilot in the United States Air Force, to thank. It was he who had the matching HLA (human leukocyte antigen) and whose donated stem cells saved Banuke’s life.Today she is cancer-free, looking forward to a forthcoming trip to the Balkans, and celebrating the 10th anniversary of her transplant with Steve, who arrived in Vancouver on Thursday with his wife.“It was really, really tough to digest and I was not accepting that this was happening to me,” Banuke said of that day she was diagnosed in 2007.But when her spleen suddenly swelled to four times its normal size, pushing against all sorts of nerves and causing unbearable pain, she surrendered to treatment, which meant three sets of chemo, six months at a time, followed by a couple of months of rest.
Luba Banuke greets Steve, who saved her life 10 years ago by donating his stem cells. Photo: Nick Procaylo/Postmedia
NICK PROCAYLO /
A one-time school principal at Sperling Elementary in Burnaby and longtime education professor at SFU and then UBC, she kept working through the treatments and drugs. And continued helping her daughter Maria with her kids while Maria was at work.“It gave me that, not hope, but oomph, this desire to continue,” she said.It was after her third round of chemo, while she was teaching a course in Parksville that she got a call out of the blue from VGH’s hematology department about getting a bone-marrow transplant.It was July, 2009.“I couldn’t even answer them, it was such a shock,” she said. “I was in tears, I was broken.”Not only hadn’t she been informed this was an option until that call, she was told that the window was closing on a transplant being possible and that as opposed to a prognosis of having a couple more years to live with chemo, there was only a 10-per-cent chance she’d survive the transplant surgery because her immune system would be basically reduced to zero.Her daughter helped convince her to give it a go, that a one-in-10 shot at life was better than two years of pain and deterioration. It was September, 2009, and Steve spent five days in the donor process as his stem cells were collected and flown to Vancouver.“Steve was in Delaware at that time and I was in VGH,” Banuke said. “It was midnight and I heard the helicopter land on the roof and within minutes …”There is a waiting period of three years before a recipient can seek out their a donor and see if they agree to be contacted. Banuke got Steve’s email address, the only thing to that point she knew about him.They began communicating, he came to be almost like family to Banuke and her daughter. They invited him to Maria’s son’s bar mitzvah in 2013. He was honoured to accept.“We picked Steve up at the airport and it was the most emotional reunion you can imagine,” Maria said. “How do you thank somebody for saving your life?“It just felt like the minute he walked into our lives, physically at that moment, we just felt like he was part of our family.”Steve, who asked his surname not be used because of the nature of his work, would go on to arrange another trip to ski and visit Banuke in Vancouver; he joined her, her sister, her daughter and her two grandsons in Nairobi on another occasion; Banuke flew to Miami to visit him.“I was a little apprehensive when Luba reached out, but excited to know the recipient had lived, because that’s not always the case,” Steve said.“It’s an emotional investment to go through as a donor. You want that person to live and be healthy. When I heard from Luba I said, ‘Holy smokes! She’s alive, it worked!’”Steve’s wife has not been to Vancouver before. Banuke is excited about reuniting, about showing the couple around. Steve agrees Banuke’s family feels like his extended family.Males make more successful donors than females and the optimum age of a donor is between 17 and 35. Banuke would like to take the opportunity of this anniversary to raise awareness and urges people to register with Canadian Blood Services to become a stem cell donor. It’s part of a worldwide registry network.“It’s difficult to think back 10 years ago to that timeline,” Maria said. “My mom wasn’t given any options other than chemo.“But she is super stubborn and, amazingly, she’s cancer-free, she’s in amazing health now.“On Monday she was on top of Whistler hiking, she was a trooper, she kept up. Then she jumped into the ocean once we were back.“She doesn’t say no to anything,” Maria said, adding with a smile: “Even when I think she should.”email@example.com/gordmcintyre