Patient Care

A Second Chance from a Stranger: Leukemia Survivor Celebrates 25 Years, Looks Forward to Wedding

Jun. 2, 2023

A quarter-century of cancer survivorship. That’s what Chris Costello is looking at. He credits it to a man who started out as a stranger but who, in the last 25 years, has become so close that he’ll be beside him as he heads to the altar to get married in September.

“He gave me a second chance at life,” Chris says of his donor, Ed Suslovic. “We've kept in touch over the years. He's like family to me.”

At age 8, Chris was diagnosed with leukemia. He received treatment at Strong Memorial Hospital and went into remission. But a while later, he relapsed.

Chris and Ed

A bone marrow transplant was Chris’s best chance of a cure, but he needed a match. Despite testing many people in his family, no one they could find fit the bill.

At the time, in 1998, Strong performed about 98 transplants per year. In 2022, the number of transplants at Wilmot Cancer Institute, part of Strong, has nearly doubled.

In addition, thanks to research, Wilmot has expanded the types of cellular therapies it can perform, offering haploidentical transplants, which allows those who are not fully matched to be a donor; cord blood transplants, which uses stem cells from donated, discarded umbilical cord; and CAR T-cell therapy, through which a patient’s own cells are re-engineered to fight the cancer.

The size of the BMT team at Wilmot has also increased, including more staff and more physicians with transplant-specific expertise.

“While it sounds trite, the quote ‘it takes a village’ has been applied to our Blood and Marrow Transplant team many times,” says Jane Liesveld, MD, associate chief of Academic Affairs and Hematology at Wilmot. She has worked with Wilmot’s BMT program since 1989. “I think we have a great ‘village’ here with lots of people who’ve dedicated time, effort and their expertise to this program. I think that’s what makes it special.”

Despite the challenges of treatment, Chris recalls the time relatively fondly, perhaps largely due to the compassionate team that took care of him. In fact, he has kept in touch with some of his nurses over the years.

“We have formed great relationships,” Chris says. “The care was great. It was like a family at that point. You could feel that everyone was pulling for you to make it through.”

Chris had no idea he was about to add another “family member” to his life when Ed, from Portland, Maine, was determined to be a match.

Ed recalls signing up for the registry right after college. It wasn’t until about 12 years later when, out of the blue, he got a call.

You’re a potential match to a 10-year-old boy with leukemia who is somewhere in the U.S., someone told him over the phone.

“The first thought was, what if one of my kids needed a transplant? What would I say to the potential match?” he said. “So really there were two questions. Where do you need me? When do you need me?”

Things moved quickly and before long, the marrow from Ed traveled from a Massachusetts hospital to Chris at Strong in Rochester. Chris went into remission and immediately wanted to meet his donor – but had to wait one year before he could make contact, assuming Ed was also open to contact.

He was.

Chris recalls bubbling with excitement at the idea of meeting his donor, to the point that he ended up calling him for the first time at 5 a.m.

They talked, and an in-person introduction happened quickly – the rest is history. The pair have remained friends ever since, keeping in touch by phone and through texting.

They have gotten together at least once a year since their first meeting, sometimes even twice a year. Ed visits Rochester, and then Chris will visit Ed in Maine.

“To me, it’s the best thing I’ve done in my life,” Ed says. “Our families have become like one big family.”

Chris, Ed and their families have become vocal about the importance of joining the national registry and supporting patients at Wilmot.

After Chris had found his donor, his mother, Kathy, used funds raised for Chris’s benefit to start an organization called Christopher’s Challenge. The group holds golf fundraisers and bone marrow registry drives, to encourage more people to sign up.

Since forming in 1998, the organization has helped thousands of blood cancer patients at Wilmot, directly or indirectly. When a patient has a need or a situation, Wilmot’s Social Work team reaches out and Christopher’s Challenge provides support.

More recently, during the COVID pandemic, the group sent meals to the hospital for staff and patients on a monthly basis. They also purchased and donated 20 iPads for patients to use while they were hospitalized and isolated from family because of visitation policies.

“Having the opportunity to follow patients like Christopher long term inspires all of us, and he and his family, through the Christopher’s Challenge Foundation, have done much to support the program and our patients who have unique needs related to donor typing and long hospital stays,” says Liesveld.

Besides maintaining a friendship with his donor and being part of the nonprofit that has his name attached, over the last 25 years, Chris has gone to college, held a few jobs, including working at Paychex for the last six years. He’s met his fiancée, Chelsie, and gotten a dog, Sloane.

He has some residual graft-vs-host disease side effects that have impacted his lungs, but not in a detrimental way. He can still do things he enjoys, like playing basketball and golfing with his fiancée – they spent a good amount of time at the PGA at Oak Hill recently.

His life is as normal as ever, and he credits it to his care team and his bone marrow donor, who gave him a second chance.

“The bone marrow transplant saved my life and since then, everything has been going great,” Chris says. “I would just love for people to see that you can get through this and honestly live a completely normal life, where cancer isn't what surrounds your every thought and every day.”

Ed echoes that experience in encouraging everyone to consider joining the Be the Match registry.

“You could save someone’s life,” he says. “It’s as simple as that.”