Amy Katz, a beautiful, blond-haired 20-year-old woman, sits in her parents’ Mt. Lebanon living room on an early summer afternoon.
The Penn State senior, majoring in kinesiology (the study of body movement), just arrived home after a day’s work as a counselor at the South Hills Jewish Community Center’s day camp. She has a great smile. She is soft-spoken, eloquent and passionate about helping kids who are battling cancer — a battle with which she is intimately famliar.
Many will remember Katz as the “Amy” of Amy’s Army, an intensive volunteer effort organized by Katz’s friends and neighbors, who rallied behind the then-10-year-old after she was diagnosed in 2003 with chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML).
CML is a type of leukemia that is rarely seen in children, and that can only be cured with a stem cell transplant from a donor whose blood contains the right type of cells.
But for Katz, who is an Ashkenazi Jew, despite a search of the worldwide registry for stem cell donors, no match could be found.
Now, 10 years later, thanks to a regimen of oral chemotherapy, Katz is doing well, and is committed to helping other children who are fighting cancer.
After years of being in the spotlight, of having her photo on posters plastered all over the city advertising bone marrow drives, Katz is understandably media shy. And yet, she is ready to do what she can to get the word out to help others.
She also is dedicated to fundraising to fight cancer, as others did for her.
“I was a bit timid when I came to Penn State,” she said. “I grew up with Amy’s Army. Everyone was always fundraising for me. But fundraising for cancer is a huge part of Penn State culture. Everyone is passionate about the cause. So, I went from one side to the other. I have no shyness about it now.”
When she first arrived at Penn State, few people knew she was the Amy of Amy’s Army.
“It was kind of nice going where people didn’t know me,” she said. “Everyone in Mt. Lebanon and the Jewish community knew me. Amy’s Army was a big, defining part of who I was. It was a relief to get to Penn State. When people met me, they didn’t know about me.”
She is dedicating herself now to helping others through Pillar, a Penn State organization that raises money for Penn State’s Dance Marathon (THON). THON, the largest student-run philanthropy in the world, sends all of its proceeds to the Four Diamonds Fund, which offsets the cost of cancer treatment for children at the Penn State Hershey Medical Center.
Last year, THON raised over $12 million for the Four Diamonds Fund.
“I feel pretty good about everything,” Katz said. “I feel blessed about how lucky I am. I was in remission within a couple months [of diagnosis]. With THON, I see a lot of kids with more difficult journeys. In the scheme of things, I’ve been blessed.”
Katz is in medical remission, which means her body has 0 percent cancer cells, but she must remain on Gleevec, an oral chemotherapy treatment, every day.
While she does experience significant side effects from the treatment — nausea, stomach issues, joint pain — it doesn’t hold her back from doing, well, anything.
Last spring, Katz was chosen to be one of the marathon dancers for THON, which meant she had to stay on her feet for 46 hours.
“It was an amazing experience,” she said. “It’s special to get picked as one of the dancers. It was definitely one of the best experiences of my life. It’s one big, crazy party. You don’t sit down or sleep; it’s a testament to what the kids are fighting.”
According to her mother, Lisa Katz, it is Amy who is “amazing.”
“She has learned to live with the side effects for so long, I think it is her new normal,” Lisa Katz said. “She’s lived half her life in this state. A constant healthy state is so far in her past.”
While Amy is still on the stem cell donor list, she no longer actively seeks one because her odds of survival on Gleevec are so high.
“She has less than a 1 percent chance of relapse on the drug, and a 30 percent chance of not surviving if she has the transplant,” Lisa Katz said.
If Amy should stop responding to Gleevec, there are now three new generations of drugs she could try, “which is huge,” her mother said.
While Amy’s Army is no longer focused on bone marrow drives, it still is actively involved in raising money for leukemia research. And while the volunteer group’s efforts have not produced a match for Amy, many other people with cancer have found donors thanks to the drives organized by Amy’s Army.
“There are at least 30 people who went to transplant because of Amy’s Army blood drives,” Lisa Katz said. “To me, that was a miracle. We were meant to save many lives.”
Amy’s Army has registered more than 10,000 people in 12 states. And, because people remain in the registry for 40 years, the impact of Amy’s Army’s will be felt for years to come.
“I think a lot of people were inspired by my story, and jumped up to be a donor,” Amy Katz said. “It’s a really easy way to save someone’s life. I think everyone should do it. I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t do it.”
It is particularly important for Jews to get themselves on the registry, according to Lisa Katz. Genetically, they are often the best matches for other Jews.
“Jews are a minority on the registry because of the Holocaust,” she said. “The number of Jews out there is depleted. We need to get more Jews on the registry. It’s just a cheek swab.”
Anyone between the ages of 18 and 61, who is in good health, can get on the registry by going to the Central Blood Bank of Pittsburgh, or by going through giftoflife.org.
“The bottom line is we want to wipe out leukemia,” said Lisa Katz. “As a disease, it’s taken too many lives. And finding a bone marrow donor is like finding a needle in a haystack. I say, ‘Let’s put more needles in the haystack.’ ”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)