After being diagnosed with cancer this past August, Ryan Catling, 24, is relying on his sister, Jessica Catling, 21, to save his life - and his girlfriend Amanda Levar has made an enormous sacrifice to help him along the way.
On July 31, Ryan didn’t even have any noticeable symptoms of cancer.
After a day at work as a house painter — a physically involved job — he went to the doctor because of a rash that he thought was related to acne medication.
At first the doctor told him he just had a ‘common rash’ and Ryan was about to be sent home when he happened to scratch his leg.
As his fingernails rubbed over his skin, almost instantly, little red marks appeared.
The doctor, alarmed at what he saw, immediately ordered blood work.
Ryan was later told that most doctor’s wouldn’t have been able to see such a small thing, or know what it meant if they did, but that doctor’s actions are perhaps the only thing that kept Ryan alive through the fall.
The blood tests done at Sault Area Hospital showed doctors that Ryan was about three weeks into Acute Myeloid Leukemia — a type of cancer that affects blood cells from bone marrow and "usually gets worse quickly if it is not treated," according to the National Cancer Institute.
By Friday, Ryan was hospitalized in Sudbury and from then until October he spent most of his time going through chemotherapy and having tests.
Doctors were hoping they could stop the spread of the cancer by early September but it didn't work.
“The type of Leukemia I have I should have gone away after the first regimen of chemo but since it didn’t, there is a high chance to relapse so they need to do a stem cell transplant,” said Ryan.
Stem cells are sort of like blank cells — they have the potential to be any type of cell in the human body. In adults, they are part of the body’s built-in repair system.
In order to beat Ryan’s Leukemia, doctors are planning to administer a round of chemotherapy so strong that it will bring him to the brink of death.
After this intense treatment, doctors have told him he will need to have plenty of stem cells so that he can recover.
For stem cell transplants, if doctors don’t find a donor with a strong genetic match, there is a higher chance of the receiver’s body treating them as invasive.
Doctors told Ryan there have been people who've tried to get a stem cell donor but failed to find a genetic match. However, since he had an adult sibling — Jessica — she was good place to start the hunt for one since biological siblings tend to have the highest chance of matching genetically.
Jessica was nervous getting tested in mid-September and even more-so when the results came back on Oct. 1.
“I didn’t want to even pick up the phone call when I saw Ottawa calling me. I thought there was no way I would be a match,” she said.
She was wrong.
Amazingly, Jessica tested the highest genetic match possible — but there is still a fight ahead.
Even with such a strong genetic match, Ryan’s body might reject the foreign stem cells.
There are risks for Jessica’s health as well.
As part of the procedure, Jessica will be taking Neupogen — a drug currently under a safety advisory by Health Canada.
Neupogen multiplies cell growth in the body and, while doctors are using them to multiply the stem cells her bone marrow produces, the drug could also multiply any harmful cells as well.
“I’m scared. They said that if I have cancer cells in my body that I can get cancer form doing this — but it’s rare,” she said.
Despite the risks, Jessica said helping her brother wasn’t really a choice — it’s just something family does.
“There was no really thinking about it. I just had to do it,” she said.
Ryan was recently moved to Ottawa where doctors are now preparing him for the transplant procedure.
During the chemotherapy and transplant operation — which is to happen over a period of a week — he will be kept under strict quarantine.
After the procedure is over he will have to stay in Ottawa for at least four months, mostly at a rented home, and avoid going out in public.
His immune system will have been obliterated so badly that a little sniffle in an otherwise healthy person could be a deadly lung infection for him.
So the fight isn’t over yet.
Regarding Ryan’s ordeal, another person should be mentioned.
In September, just as doctors were telling Ryan that the fight was going to be a lot more arduous, his girlfriend Amanda Levar was maybe three classes into a new nursing program at Sault College.
However, as soon as she got the news that Ryan was in for a much longer fight, Levar voluntarily left the program to help Ryan.
Since then she has put her life and school on hold and acted as Ryan’s full-time caregiver, spending most nights beside him on a tiny cot.
She hopes to continue her program next year but, for now, it's all about making sure he gets better and she is expected to be with Ryan throughout the procedure and throughout his stay in Ottawa.
Ryan also has his parents Robert and Franca Catling, his younger brother Lucas, 7, Jessica’s boyfriend Dan Vernelli, and other friends and family supporting him through everything as well — even if sometimes it can only be through Facebook videos.
His fight is not over.
The intensive stem-cell transplant procedure is scheduled for Nov. 20.