When Nikki McGuire learned that her leukemia had returned last year, she broke down.
But the tears were not only because she once again had to battle the disease. She was most upset about leaving her kindergarten students at Staton Elementary School in Summerlin in the middle of the school year and returning to Arizona for treatment.
“I didn’t want to leave the parents and the kids,” she said. “I felt like I was letting them down.”
McGuire, 36, has chronic myeloid leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow that she has been fighting since 2009.
Fighting the disease has been a challenge, but something even stronger runs through her veins: an absolute love of teaching. It’s what keeps her running, she said.
“I go to work every day and I’m happy to be at work,” said McGuire, who returned to the classroom in February after undergoing another round of treatment. “Those kids make me happy. It doesn’t matter if I’m having a horrible day where I’m in so much pain and I feel awful.”
And the school loves her back. Parents, staff and students have rallied around McGuire.
A team of parents has helped raise money for McGuire’s medical expenses through a GoFundMe appeal that, as of Friday, had raised nearly $23,500 toward the $100,000 goal. They’ve also sold purple “Hope for Nikki” shirts that students wear on Tuesdays.
That community is one reason why McGuire wanted to get back to school as soon as possible.
“They’re the most supportive people I’ve ever met in my life,” she said. “It’s not even just the staff. It’s the students. It’s the parents. It’s the entire community.”
A long battle
Chronic myeloid leukemia typically is slow-growing and usually strikes older adults, said Dr. Ed Kingsley, a hematologist with the Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada.
It was once considered almost certainly fatal, but a breakthrough occurred in 2000 with the introduction of a targeted therapy called imatinib. It’s a once-a-day pill that’s a targeted therapy, not a chemotherapy.
For most patients, it keeps the cancer away for good.
“Ninety-five percent of patients are going to respond very well,” Kingsley said.
McGuire took four types of chemotherapy pills over several years that produced bad side effects before learning she would need a bone marrow transplant. She found a match for a marrow donor through the Be the Match organization.
The service isn’t available in Nevada, so she had to travel to Banner-University Medical Center in Tucson for the surgery.
After her transplant in 2016, McGuire developed graft-versus-host disease, a rare complication in which the donor bone marrow or stem cells attack the recipient. She didn’t come home until late that year.
When she returned to Nevada, she couldn’t wait to go back to work. Staying home that school year was hard.
‘I am a teacher’
“I am a teacher. That is who I am. That is my life,” she said. “With that being taken away from me, I had a really rough time.”
She returned to Staton this school year before learning that her cancer had returned. Her donor was willing to donate yet again, this time for a different treatment called a lymphocyte infusion. She underwent that procedure in January and also was put on a targeted therapy treatment similar to imatinib.
Now she’s back in class, wearing a medical mask and gloves to protect her from germs. But her kids, she said, don’t ask her about it. They understand that she is sick.
“The outpouring of love and support form this school and community is more than I could’ve ever asked or dreamed for in my life,” she said.
McGuire also got another surprise: her marrow donor gave $5,000 to her GoFundMe account, in addition to the gift of his blood marrow and white blood cells.
Eric Nelson, McGuire’s donor, said he initially made a commitment to donate when his friend’s son was diagnosed with leukemia 20 years ago, but he was not a match.
He was happy to give this time around, he said.
“It made me think of my daughter,” who is just a little younger than McGuire, he said. “I would hope that if she ever contracted that, that a stranger would be willing to do the same for her.”
McGuire said she was floored when she learned of Nelson’s cash donation.
“It’s like, ‘You’ve already done more than you could — any person could ever possibly do for someone — you’ve given me life,’” McGuire said. “He didn’t need to even do that, and he was so generous.”
No bone marrow center here
Southern Nevada lacks a bone marrow transplant center, so patients with cancer and other diseases that require the surgery are generally forced to travel out of state.
“To do this, you need a commitment,” said Dr. Russell Gollard, medical oncology director for local OptumCare Cancer Care. “You need a whole team, and oftentimes, these belong to big academic medical centers.”
As Las Vegas grows, it will need to start a bone marrow transplant center locally, Gollard said, but that will take resources.
“We have at least 45 or 50 working medical oncologists here in town, and most everybody sends individuals out of town every year,” he said.