Andrea McGrath moved to Boston after completing graduate school in the late 1990s, unaware at the time of how important it would be to be in the Longwood area, close to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Unlike many other patients who would end up at Dana-Farber, Andrea never heard: “You have cancer.” She first noticed easy bruising and mentioned it to her new primary care doctor in summer 2001. This led to a series of tests at a local Boston hospital, and an aplastic anemia diagnosis, a rare but serious blood disorder that occurs when the body’s bone marrow cannot produce enough healthy blood cells to function properly. Andrea was referred to Dana-Farber’s Adult Hematology Treatment Center for a bone marrow transplant after a few unsuccessful efforts to “reboot” her system with a series of medications.
That’s where she met Joseph Antin, MD, chief of Stem Cell Transplantation emeritus and his then-fellow Corey Cutler, MD, MPH, FRCPC, who has since become medical director of the Adult Stem Cell Transplantation Program, and a great friend to Andrea over the years. After several months of prep and frustrating news that there was no donor match within her immediate family, Dana-Farber secured a stem cell donor for Andrea and helped her begin the preparation process. She visited the Institute multiple times a week for blood and platelet infusions and ultimately began her four-week stay after a successful transplant procedure. “I vividly remember every moment of those four weeks,” Andrea shares. “I had so many champions during that time. The magic of the staff’s tremendous knowledge and experience, in addition to their support, got me through an intense couple of weeks.”
Andrea celebrated the 20-year anniversary of her stem cell transplant in spring 2022. She continues to remain grateful for the support of the Dana-Farber team and is confident that she received a successful transplant because of Dana-Farber’s top-tier patient care. “I didn’t feel like I had to do anything but show up and fight,” she recalls. “I knew everything else would be taken care of and that is a gift. The best advice that I received early in my diagnosis was not to think about the odds and look at the other patients, but to stay focused on me. It was an overwhelming time, but I learned to concentrate and stay focused on where I wanted to go.” Andrea has also been amazed by the advances in stem cell transplants over the years, which felt much less common two decades ago. She was inspired to celebrate this success and fund additional advances under the direction of Dr. Cutler by hosting events to support Dana-Farber and the Jimmy Fund at her 15- and 20-year milestones.
Andrea notes that it took many years to feel comfortable starting a Jimmy FundRaiser event in recognition of her own journey as a Dana-Farber patient. “I did not want the spotlight on me, but when I turned 50, I realized that my experience was a gift and I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and use my network to support other patients and families,” she shares. “I continue to be truly blown away by the generosity of my friends and family.” Andrea’s Toasting ’15 and ’20 Years of Survivorship fundraisers focused on personalized email outreach where she shared her story and relationship with Dr. Cutler and Dana-Farber with her friends and family, and ultimately asked them to donate to support Dr. Cutler’s work, which is supporting blood disorder patients each day. She also hosted an in-person party at the end of each fundraising effort with family and friends to thank them for their generosity and celebrate their support of Dana-Farber patients and their families. Her biggest advice to Jimmy FundRaisers is two-fold: “Don’t be afraid to go broad and reach out to your extended network for support. You’d be surprised how many people are affected by cancer and will be willing to support your fundraising efforts,” she shares. “And don’t be afraid to make things personal and share specific stories about your own experiences with cancer so it feels real to your donors and event participants.”
Andrea has formed a special bond with Dr. Cutler, staying in touch as friends since she transitioned her care back to her primary care physician and joining him on the 2010 WEEI/NESN Jimmy Fund Radio-Telethon to share her story. “I love to stay up to date on what’s happening,” she shares. “Corey is a great friend and it is mind-blowing that patients are now benefitting from the Ambulatory Transplant Program, which he helped launch in 2019. I had the ’plastic bubble’ experience that was somewhat isolating, so it’s amazing to support new efforts that are redefining how stem cell transplants are conducted and giving patients some normalcy through this process.” Dr. Cutler is energized by Andrea’s friendship and inspired by her dedication to giving back to support Dana-Farber. “Patients like Andrea represent my entire career here at Dana-Farber,” he reflects. “For me, far more than seeing simple long-term survivorship is seeing what my patients have done with their time. Seeing people like Andrea, who is already a full-time social entrepreneur, give back truly makes the effort to move our field forward that much more fulfilling.”
Support Dana-Farber patients and families by joining The Dana-Farber Campaign, our ambitious, multi-year fundraising effort to prevent, treat, and defy cancer. The Dana-Farber Campaign will accelerate the Institute’s strategic priorities by supporting revolutionary science, extraordinary care, and exceptional expertise. As a community, we have the power to create a more hopeful, cancer-free future—in Boston and around the world. Together, we can defy cancer at every turn. Learn more about The Dana-Farber Campaign and how you can get involved at DefyCancer.org.