The world was rocked for Sabrina Mainil last July when she got the news that she was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia, and then again in October when that diagnosis was upgraded to acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).
The 24-year-old Weyburn woman began chemotherapy on Oct. 28 at the Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon, and in January she had a stem cell transplant to help in her recovery from the blood cancer.
A major part of her strength and encouragement on her cancer journey has been the love and support of her family and friends, including a Facebook page for her supporters, called the “Sab Squad”.
When she began having “weird symptoms” like rashes and bloating, her initial thoughts were she had developed an intolerance to gluten, so she cut that down in her diet. It helped for a little while, but the symptoms came back, and once she was able to be tested, she received the news on July 2 that she had chronic myeloid leukemia.
Sabrina was put on medication, taking a pill once a day, but by October she still wasn’t feeling all that healthy. She had some blood work done, and the numbers were concerning, so her doctors had her take a bone marrow biopsy, and the verdict came back that she had ALL.
Sabrina was admitted to the hospital right away, and she began a 50-day stay at the RUH to take chemotherapy. She was able to have a three-week break in December over the Christmas-New Year’s holidays, and on Jan. 7 she was readmitted so she could receive her stem cell transplant, from her sister Ambria.
“It was a shocker at first to get the news. The first couple of weeks it was pretty tough on whole family,” said her mom, Deana, adding she reached the point where she realized, “It’s God’s plan, it’s in God’s hands, and in the doctors’ hands, and if you don’t leave it that way, you’d kill yourself with worry. We just have complete faith, and still do, in her health care team.”
As a stem cell transplant was deemed to be the best course of treatment for her leukemia, Sabrina’s siblings had their blood tested to see if there was a bone marrow match. Her brothers, Josh and Davin, both had a 50-per-cent match, while Ambria had a 100-per-cent match, making her the ideal donor of stem cells.
“It was a pretty good day to hear about my sister being a match,” said Sabrina.
Ambria was really happy to learn that her stem cells were a perfect match. “It was the best phone call I got in my life, because I knew my brothers were both half-matches, so I was really happy when they called me. Me and my dad were both tearing up, it was just the best news ever,” she said.
She noted it was not an invasive procedure, as they took blood out of one arm, separated out the stem cells and returned the blood in her other arm. The only disruption for her was to stop breast-feeding her baby, Laurel, who was seven months old at that point.
“It was really special,” said Ambria. “I felt really blessed that I could donate my stem cells.”
Sabrina was in hospital for 30 days after the transplant and was released on Feb. 8, but had to go back in for a week after she had a fever and a rash. As a follow up on her stem cell transplant, she has to be closely monitored for a 100-day period afterward for the possibility of graft-versus-host disease (GVHD), which includes visits to the hospital three times a week for four to five hours for ongoing treatment.
The visits include an assessment by a nurse, and consultation with her hematologist and a pharmacist followed by IV supplements according to her blood work results.
The GVHD disease can occur in recipients of stem cell transplants, as the host body might reject or react to the transplanted cells. As of April 7, Sabrina is 83 days into the process, but she noted the monitoring will still continue after the 100 days is finished.
A big part of her support comes from the “Sab Squad” Facebook page, and it began from a conversation Sabrina had with Ambria as many family members and friends kept asking for updates about how Sabrina was doing, especially when she was in the hospital for chemotherapy.
During her hospital stay, Ambria or Sabrina posted one photo a day with a brief comment about how she was doing.
“So now there’s people I don’t even know following me. It’s kind of funny, because the nurses and people at the hospital found my page somehow and they are keeping tabs on me too, which is kind of cute,” said Sabrina. “So much support came from it, it’s really an awesome thing.”
She added she feels very blessed to have the level of support she has, because many others who are battling cancer don’t have that.
“It’s just been amazing, the amount of people who just tell you that they’re thinking of you, and all the comments they make on the page. It definitely helps keep you positive when you’re surrounded by so much love all the time,” said Sabrina.
Another major part of her support has been the presence of her mom or her sister almost every day she’s been in hospital, or even while she’s resting and recovering at her condo.
The separation from her family has been difficult, but they’ve done things to let her know she’s close in their thoughts, such as a surprise for her 24th birthday in January. As her window faces the parking lot, several family members gathered there and face-timed with her while holding up signs and waving at her, wishing her a happy birthday.
Asked how COVID has impacted her, Sabrina said in some ways COVID restrictions have both made it hard for her and been a blessing to her.
“I can’t get COVID or it would kill me, basically, so that part of it’s not good,” said Sabrina, adding the blessing is that COVID restrictions require everyone to sanitize their hands and wear masks everywhere, which is good for her.
The whole cancer journey has brought her really close to Ambria, as she lived with her for the past two years until Sabrina got her own condo in Saskatoon. As a teacher, Ambria was on maternity leave to have her daughter Laurel, and the timing was actually a good thing as she was able to be with Sabrina almost every day. She wouldn’t have been able to do that if she was still in the classroom.
“It’s really hard for my brothers and their wives not to be able to see her. I just feel so lucky I can be beside her and do whatever I can to be with her. She’s just the most positive inspiring person, she’s just awesome,” said Ambria, adding while she’s older, she considers Sabrina to be more mature in many ways.
“When she had to lose all her hair, I didn’t even think twice about it. I said I would shave my head with her, and we faced each other as two nurses shaved our heads at the same time,” said Ambria.
Her dad, Dale, hasn’t been able to spend much time with her, which has been hard on him, but Deana noted they face-time every evening together. He has been able to help her out by setting up her condo along with Ambria, buying groceries for Sabrina and making sure there is a lunch or supper ready on a day when Sabrina has to be at the hospital for her outpatient treatments.