'You just did a lot of praying that they would eventually find somebody.’
It takes cancer survivor Joseph Mandel awhile to open his Woodland Hills front door because he’s on crutches. His leg injury, however, is not due to disease but to a recent skiing accident. Mandel, who underwent a stem cell transplant from an unrelated donor in 2010, is back to his old passions, sailing down slopes, white-water rafting, and is even courting new loves like sky diving.
The son of Holocaust survivors, Mandel pushed himself through treatment – and recovery – just as he has driven himself during his successful career in the competitive world of information technology.
In December 2009, following a visit to a doctor treating him for rheumatoid arthritis, Mandel was astonished to learn that the bruises and fatigue he’d been noticing were traced to acute myelogenous leukemia. He came to City of Hope in 2010 under the care of Auayporn Nademanee, M.D., medical director of the Matched Unrelated Donor Program at City of Hope. “They laid it out straight,” recalled Mandel. If a donor could not be found for him, he likely would die within a year.
When no matches were found within his family, his name was added to the National Marrow Donor Program’s “Be the Match” registry. “You just did a lot of praying that they would eventually find somebody,” Mandel said. In the meantime, though, his family, including daughter, Falicia and sisters Sara, Monica and Sharon mobilized, working with Be the Match to stage community drives to find a donor.
A perfect donor eventually was identified through the registry. The transplant took place at City of Hope in April 2010. Mandel knew only that his stem cell benefactor was a 22-year-old male.
To help pass the time at the hospital – and regain control of his life – Mandel charted his daily blood work to track his recovery progress. Physically fit before the transplant, he exercised daily “no matter how fatigued I got.” Instead of watching tv, he’d read, work on his laptop, and visit with family and fellow patients in physical and recreational therapy. He asked to have tube feedings pared back so he could begin eating solid food.
Within 20 days, he was back home, where he became his own personal trainer with the aid of his wife, Rachel, who actually is a personal trainer and nutritionist. Mandel defied crippling fatigue by taking short walks and lifting small weights. Gradually his stamina returned. Fiercely independent, he kept focused and in control; learning to clean his PICC line, cook meals to restore his 165-lb. frame, even create a laptop spreadsheet to keep track of his 35 medications.
Mandel’s illness was torturous on his family, especially his mother (now 94) who lost her husband and daughter to cancer, yet along with her daughters faithfully traveled to City of Hope to visit Mandel. His family was pleased to learn his donor is from Israel, as is Rachel, who praised the ripple effect of donation. “You’re not only saving the recipient’s life; you’re also saving the lives of the family.”
How has the transplant transformed Mandel? “I don’t put a lot of thought into these huge, philosophical-type questions. I just wanted to do these things I did before…My big message is ‘don’t let cancer run your life.’”
He has noticed that “You start doing things you might not have done before.” When his illness prevented them celebrating their 30th anniversary in Israel in 2010, he and Rachel made the pilgrimage in 2011. “It makes you less afraid to take chances and do things.” Their children Marc, 30 and Falicia 25, are “highly adventurous, too,” and proudly accompany them in extreme sports activities like skydiving, whitewater rafting, and snow skiing.
Mandel’s carpe diem spirit is underscored by his deep gratitude to the young man who saved his life and whom he’ll be meeting at City of Hope on May 10. ”The old cliché, ‘life’s pretty short’ is true,” he says. “I could have been dead at 61. Thank God for my donor and may God bless him.”