Siblings defeat cancer crisis; ex-student leading drive for tissue typing

Lauren LaBoyteaux / THE FLARE || Two years later, transplant survivor Jeremy Cotham is cancer free. The date on his shirt, Nov. 17, 2010, represents the date of his successful cell transplant from his sister, Amber Cotham Whitehead.

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While playing golf in July of 2006, a 22-year-old KC alumnus who was active in all sports, should have had no problem teeing up for a game of golf. Jeremy Cotham started feeling tired and his chest hurt.

Cotham attended KC in 2004 and graduated in Fall of 2006. He transferred to the University of Texas at Tyler in the Spring of 2007 and graduated in May 2009.

“I could usually get through a round of golf, but I couldn’t get through this round,” Cotham said.

The next week Cotham participated in a church softball game and he couldn’t run to first base.

“I felt like I was out of shape, so I started to try to get back into shape and it wasn’t working,” Cotham said.

He developed a cold and went to the doctor’s office and they thought it was the flu so they did a flu test, but it was negative. The doctor gave him a Z-Pack, but he went back to the doctor’s office a few days later because the medicine wasn’t making him any better.

Cotham was then sent to an emergency clinic for a chest X-Ray. The doctor concluded that he had a small case of pneumonia.

At the third doctor visit, the doctor noticed that Cotham was much paler than he was the last time he had been there. Blood work was done on August 6, 2009, and the results showed his white cell blood count was 250,000 while the normal white cell blood count is 4,000 to 11,000. He was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.

“You get emotional and you start crying,” Cotham said. “You’re thinking, ‘I’m going to die.’”

He was immediately taken to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Overnight the disease had aggressively increased his white cell count from 250,000 to 650,000.

His white cell count was too high to start chemotherapy, so doctors immediately had to hook him up on a leukapheresis machine. This process involves removal of whole blood from a patient. The next day after two procedures his count was under 100,000.

The count was down enough to begin chemotherapy. The protocol for his type of leukemia was eight rounds of chemo, each round taking four to five days with two to three weeks of recovery. This treatment went on from mid August to January of 2010.

Cotham was actually in remission at the end of round one, but continued chemotherapy just to be safe.

After the eighth round maintenance period, July 3, 2010, he had a checkup in Houston.

A lumbar puncture was done to check that his spine was clear, and it turned out it was not. Cotham had relapsed 60 percent.

He had to have more chemo, and a cell transplant from his sister, Amber Cotham Whitehead.

“Doctors mentioned that if Jeremy relapsed he would need a transplant, about a month after he was diagnosed with the cancer,” Whitehead said. “They said brothers and sisters don’t always match, so we didn’t want to get our hopes up.”

She turned out to be a perfect 10-out-of-10-match.

“I was relieved that she was a match so I didn’t have to take a chance at the registry,” Cotham said.

Siblings are the highest possible match but only 25 percent of them are a match.

Anita Quinn, coordinator of Because I Care, says 70 percent of people who need marrow have to go to registries because they do not have a family member who is a match.

To raise awareness about tissue typing, the Tri-C, where Cotham was a member during his KC years, is hosting an event sponsored by Because I Care from 10 a.m. – 1 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 15, to give students the opportunity to join the Be The Match registry free of charge.

Colleges are filled with many young adults, these drives are held in hope of finding many matches.

“Young people generally don’t have anything in their health history that older people have gone through,” Quinn said. The age range for those to be recruited changed Oct. 1 to 18-44.

Britt Davis, Tri-C director who is coordinating the event, said the connection that the Tri-C has with Cotham and his father, David, motivated the Bible chair to host the event.

Cotham’s sister speaks from experience: “If you can save someone’s life it’s worth it,” Whitehead said.


Want to safe a life?

Because I Care, a donor recruitment group, giving free tissue typing 10 a.m. t 1 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 15, at the Tri-C

Join the Be The Match Registry at a Donor Registry Drive or online at

Step 1

Complete a registration form that will include contact information, health history and signed agreement to join the registry.

To be a member of the registry:

  • Be between the ages of 18 and 44.
  • Bring your driver’s license
  • Bring the names, phone numbers, mailing addresses and e-mail address of two family members or friends who do not live with you or each other
  • Be willing to donate to any patient in need
  • Meet the health guidelines

These conditions would prevent you from joining the Registry

  • Most heart diseases
  • Most cancers
  • Chronic lung diseases
  • Diabetes requiring insulin or diabetes-related health issues (such as kidney, heart, or eye disease)
  • Most conditions involving the back/neck/spine
  • Sleep apnea
  • Autoimmune disorders such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis
  • HIV, or at risk for HIV
  • Hepatitis, or at risk for hepatitis
  • Conditions affecting blood clotting or bleeding
  • Have had an organ or marrow transplant
  • Significant obesity
Step 2

For the doctors to know your tissue type, they will swab the inside of your cheek. That’s it. No needles are required. Because I Care pays the tissue-typing fees.

Step 3

Keep your contact information current by logging on to or call 1-800-MARROW-2 (1-800-627-7692)

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