The holidays will be extra special this year for Sandy and Jason Thornton. The owners of the Grocery Outlet Market in Dallas, Oregon have spent the last three years in and out of hospitals as Sandy battled a rare form of cancer called Myelodysplastic Syndrome and Myleo Fibrosis. Myelodysplastic syndromes are a group of cancers in which immature blood cells in the bone marrow do not mature or become healthy blood cells. *
Myelofibrosis causes extensive scarring in your bone marrow, leading to severe anemia that can cause weakness and fatigue. This combination is very rare, and the survival rate is not good.
However, thanks to great treatment, generous platelet donors, support from her family, and her faith in God, this is a story of survival.
Before she and her husband opened the new Grocery Outlet store in 2019, she found that she was always tired and was always sick with colds and other respiratory problems. In July of 2021, it became apparent something was wrong. She couldn’t walk before she had to sit down and rest.
At her husband’s encouragement, she saw a doctor who told her she needed some tests. When she got the results, she learned that there was a real problem. She was told her platelet count was very low at only 14,000. (A normal platelet count in adults ranges from 150,000 to 450,000 platelets per microliter of blood.)
“The nurse on the phone told me I had to get to the ER right away and offered to pray with me,” says Sandy Thornton.
Her husband raced her there and she immediately got a platelet transfusion. It helped temporarily and she thought that’d be the end of her journey. It was only the beginning. More tests would be ordered, more work would be done.
Some doctors were baffled, telling her she looked too healthy to be sick, but her oncologist advocated for more tests and treatment. She got a red blood transfusion and more platelets, then a blood marrow biopsy (she would get many of these).
The problem was, her body couldn’t hold the platelets. Eventually had to get special platelets that were a closer match and were more resilient. She was also a candidate for experimental treatment. She says she felt like a “lab rat” as she sat in the hospital enduring more treatments.
She would lose her tastebuds, and her hair in the process. Red blood and platelet transfusions would be come a routine for her. It always concerned her to hear there was a shortage of blood or platelets, because she knew she would need more. It also sometimes meant her treatment would be delayed. These transfusions added up. She would ultimately get 55 platelet transfusions and over 25 red blood transfusions. These were the only things keeping her alive for almost a year.
To give you an idea of all the treatment Sandy endured, she still must refer to the ledger she kept during her experience, so she can remember.
Eventually, she learned she’d need a stem cell blood transplant because the Fibrosis in her bone marrow would not allow her to produce red blood cells in her body. She matched a stranger who was willing to donate and she had the surgery on January 5th, 2022. She has never met this donor but hopes to in the future. She’s indebted to his generosity.
Once she showed doctors that she could produce her own blood cells and her immunity was increased, she was allowed to go home. She’s been in remission since July. She even has a different blood type now.
She looks back on what she had to go through and tries to find the positivity. She made lots of friends with the nurses in the transfusion lab and that was great but she’s grateful to be done. She says all the cliches are true when you survive cancer.
“Every day is a gift. I’m grateful to spend more time with my family and grandkids. I’ve always loved Christmas, but today, it has a whole new meeting. I’m more grateful for the small things.”
She wishes she could give her blood to help the people who are still suffering, but she can’t. However, she and her husband host several Red Cross blood drives at their store in Dallas every year and they always book up.
Her message to donors: “There are people who cannot get a stem cell transplant, which means they face a lifetime of platelet or blood transfusions. That’s their life. Blood is a lifesaver no matter how you look at it. It’s not just about when disasters happen, it’s when people get sick.”
Sandy and Jason will celebrate Sandy’s 2nd birthday on January 5th next year. They consider this her birthday because it was the day her life was saved.
As they approach this milestone, Jason looks at Sandy and smiles saying the employees at the store refer to her as “Big Boss.” He says there’s no simple explanation how to process all of this. You are dealing with a person you love without knowing the outcome. Today, they live each day like it was their last. They don’t take anything for granted.
“We go out and go camping and other places to enjoy things. We have reevaluated our life and what’s important,” says Jason Thornton.
Donations saves lives, like Sandy Thornton’s. Learn more about how you can donate blood or platelets here: www.RedCrossBlood.org.
*National Cancer Institute.