BY TOM VARTABEDIAN
BERGEN COUNTY, NJ –On the surface, Irene Hamptian Katrandjian is a 52-year-old devoted Armenian who wants nothing more than to live a happy and fulfilling life and do what’s best for her three children.
She enjoyed her daily visits to a gym, worked out faithfully to stay in peak condition and was there when it came to supporting the Armenian community around New Jersey where she resides and works as a Scholastic Aptitude Testing tutor.
Beneath the veneer, however, lies a woman tormented by fate. Irene suffers from Non-Hodgkin’s Peripheral T-Cell Lymphoma, an aggressive and unpredictable form of blood cancer that could prove fatal if she doesn’t get help quickly.
“If she doesn’t get a transplant, she will die,” said her doctor, Owen O’Connor, chief of medical oncology at New York University.
The woman has endured over six months of in-patient chemotherapy and a debilitating bone marrow transplant but somehow the disease has persisted. Her only chance for a cure is an allergenic stem cell transplant.
To perform the procedure, doctors need a blood donor who is a genetic match but currently, there are no registered donors who qualify.
“Anyone can be that match but because of her Armenian ethnicity, our mother has a better chance of finding a match among people of Armenian descent,” say family members, Christopher, Olivia and Philip Katrandjian. “It would mean the gift of life to our mother who is desperately in need of help.”
It’s not as complicated as one may think. Joining the Armenian Bone Marrow Donor Registry is a simple move and requires only a cotton swab to collect some cheek cells from the inside of your mouth.
Persons must be between the ages of 18-60 years old. If you are a match, you will be asked to donate peripheral blood from your arm just as you would if you donated blood to the Red Cross. The recipient of a match, not the donor, incurs all costs.
It’s been a nightmare for Irene ever since she was diagnosed in 2008. Katrandjian spent two hours a day inside the gym, six days a week, and felt in great shape. She had been concerned about a “pea-sized” lump in her right leg. A doctor told her not to worry — but she sought a second opinion before getting the bad news.
After six months of chemo treatments, she emerged from the ordeal ecstatic and confident she had beaten the disease.
Two months later, to her horror, the cancer was back and in less than a year, it engulfed her body and contaminated her bone marrow.
“She has very few options at this time,” say her children. “Doctors need a donor who is a genetic match. Unfortunately, no one in the worldwide registries’ current records qualifies.”
For further details, visit www.marrow.org.
Those attending the 95th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide at St. Vartan’s Cathedral in NYC would have seen a stem cell drive in conjunction with events. You would have met people like Levon Boyajian making a pitch and handing out material.
“Irene is a very determined, strong-willed Armenian woman,” said Boyajian, a close friend. “She’s a fighter and knows she must remain very positive to help herself through this terrifying time. She even comes to the blood match drives to help out. She is truly hopeful we will find her match — the elusive needle in a haystack.”
Daughter Olivia is living and working in Yerevan for the Civilitas Foundation through Birthright Armenia. She has held two drives there, one on April 24th where she registered 200 people, and another May 7 which registered 87.
Closer to home, a drive is planned June 6 in Fairlawn, NJ. Another bigger one is pursued for the end of July during the World Sports Jamboree in Yerevan which typically attracts 30,000 Armenians to those games, along with another potential drive during the AYF Olympics in Philadelphia over Labor Day Weekend.
“Irene is the love of my life: beautiful, smart, kind and caring,” says her husband George. “She has been a wonderful mother to our three children — and my best friend. I do not want to lose her and will go to the ends of the earth if I must to find her a match.”
George Katrandjian described his wife as a “very strong-willed person who has managed to stay very strong and positive throughout the ordeal.”
“Before any of this came along, she would be in the gym every day and always been very health-oriented,” he added. “Her family means everything to her and she was always prepared to help anyone else.”