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Cynthia Speckman and the woman who saved her life will urge Congress to continue funding for the 'Be The Match' program

When Cynthia Speckman found out that she had chronic myeloid leukemia, she began making plans for death.

Now, the Lake Oswego woman is making plans for life — and this week, she'll tell lawmakers in Washington, D.C., how they can make sure that others can do the same.

Speckman will team with the woman who saved her life when she urges senators and congressmen on June 12 to continue critical federal funding for Be The Match, a program that connects cancer victims to organ donors in what is literally a life-or-death mission.

“I’m testifying because any time I can tell my story, I want to do it,” Speckman said. “How can I not give back after being given something so precious? We want the congressmen to understand that for every dollar withdrawn, it means a life.”

Speckman’s testimony will be doubly effective because she will be accompanied by Kelly Purnell, the Maryland wife and mother of four who gave her bone marrow to Speckman and saved her life.

“Why go give testimony to Congress? Why wouldn’t I?” Purnell said. “I had an opportunity to save someone’s life. She is living now with my DNA, leukemia-free.”

This story of a life saved and a friendship made started in 2009, when Speckman, feeling tired, achey and sore, was informed by doctors that “something was wrong.” It was, of course, more serious than that.

In fact, the prognosis sounded like a death sentence for a woman whose life was filled with hiking, yoga, travel and international humanitarian work. Still, Speckman says, she accepted the news as serenely as possible.

“I prepared for death. I prepared well,” Speckman said. “I examined my belief system. I came to a place of peace with others.”

Doctors tried several treatment options before deciding that a bone marrow transplant would be Speckman's best chance for a cure, but the chances of finding a suitable donor were slim, even though her name was listed in the National Donor Registry. The odds were so great, in fact, that Speckman made plans to leave for Australia, where she had lived for many years, to make the most of the time she had left.

And then those odds changed.

Purnell had signed up for the National Donor Registry while in college, when a fraternity held a donor drive on behalf of a member who had been stricken with leukemia. As the years passed, she rarely thought about the program. She went on to marry and raise a family. She had a wonderful life, she said, but sometimes she wondered how much her life was really worth.

“I was a stay-at-home mom,” Purnell said. “Sometimes, my days felt like they didn’t amount to anything but laundry, dishes, homework, brushing teeth … and more laundry and dishes.”

That all changed with a phone call from the National Institutes of Health. Her DNA was a possible match for a woman in Oregon who needed a bone marrow transplant, the agency said.

“I had the image of a very painful process that was perhaps risky to me,” Purnell said. But once she did some research and talked to her advocate at NIH, her fear was replaced by an eagerness to help save a life.

The transplant was completed in December 2012.

Speckman has a photo that commemorates the occasion. Purnell’s bone marrow is sitting on a shelf next to Speckman’s hospital bed at Oregon Health & Science University, and her arms are raised in triumph and joy.

“It looks like I’m dancing in bed,” she said with a laugh.

Rules governing transplant procedures required that Speckman and Purnell remain anonymous for a year. Purnell could only get progress reports. “I just hoped and prayed for Cynthia to have more time on this Earth,” Purnell said.

But once the ban on meeting ended, Speckman and Purnell made a most happy connection. They met in person for the first time last month, and it made Speckman even more grateful for her transplant.

“I not only got a bone marrow transplant,” Speckman said. “I got the life and light of a beautiful soul.”

Now the two new friends are crusaders together, and Speckman’s interrupted life is back in gear. She is making the most of it.

“I am surprised every day,” Speckman said. “I see hummingbirds on my deck. I go dancing. I pull over to look at Mount Hood. I’m seeing spring. I had thought I would never see spring again.”

This week, she and Purnell will make sure Congress understands how much that kind of second chance means — to cancer patients and to donors.

“People say all sorts of complimentary things to me for doing this," Purnell said, "but I can’t imagine how I could have not done it.”

For more about Be The Match, go to BeTheMatch.org or call 800-627-7692.

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