After leukemia diagnosis before starting UT, Austin woman searching for bone marrow donor

Brynne Herzfeld

When the doctor walked through the door, Lizzie Tennyson knew exactly what he would say. Four days before she was going to start studying computer engineering at UT in October, her cancer was back.

“UT has been my dream since I was 16,” Tennyson said. “I had been planning to go there for so long, and … getting it taken away from me this time in particular, it’s just really hard.”

Tennyson said she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia at 13, and she said her cancer has relapsed five times since her diagnosis. 

After multiple treatments, including chemotherapy, t-cell therapy and trial drugs, Tennyson is searching for a bone marrow donor. However, she said her case is complicated because she is half African American and half Caucasian, which makes finding a suitable donor difficult.

“(The doctors) explained to me it has to do with the markers in your DNA and your ethnicity,” Tennyson said. “I have DNA markers from a full Caucasian person and a full African American person, so all of those markers have now mixed. There’s only so many people that have that same exact genetic makeup.”

A patient’s family would ideally provide matches, and siblings have a 25% chance of providing a perfect match, said Dr. William Matsui, a medical oncologist at the Dell Medical School. He said if someone is unable to find an exact bone marrow match, they can try to find near-matches.

“If we’re matching 10 different things, maybe nine out of 10 matches would probably be okay,” Matsui said. “Once you start matching less than eight, then it becomes difficult. There’s a higher chance the recipient is going to reject the donor bone marrow.”

Tennyson said she has reached out to find a donor is through an organization called Be the Match. This international organization works with patients with blood cancers and blood disorders to connect them with donors, said Samuel Hillhouse, community services manager for GenCure, the local partner of Be the Match. 

“Be the Match is the world’s largest marrow registry,” Hillhouse said. “We try to add volunteer donors to our registry, and hope that one day, every patient in need would have a matching committed donor on the registry.”

Those interested in helping Tennyson find a match can text “Lizzie” to 61474, or go out to a bone marrow donation drive organized by Be the Match.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly reported that siblings have a 50% chance of providing a perfect match, when it's actually 25%. The Texan regrets this error.