EYEWITNESS NEWS (WBRE/WYOU) — Receiving a stem cell or bone marrow transplant can be the life-saving surgery a patient needs. But a complication that is not often talked about can sometimes cause additional problems.

One of those complications is called Graft vs. Host-Disease, or GVHD for short.

A woman who has lived with GVHD since she was a teenager is sharing her experience in the hopes of helping others.

When all the testing and paperwork are finished for bone marrow or stem cell transplant patients before their operation, they begin to set their sights on a life of feeling better.

Leukemia survivor and bone marrow transplant recipient Meredith Cowden was one of those patients.

“That was the expectation, like, okay. this is going to be great. you know, smooth sailing from here and that was it was very different,” said Cowden

The 41-year-old Ohio woman tells Eyewitness News when she was 19, she received her transplant from her sister. Soon afterward, Cowden developed a burning rash, just one of the GVHD symptoms that still linger.

“I’ve had it in my stomach, intestines, kidney, currently it’s really affecting my lungs quite a bit and my muscles and joints and stuff like that,” Cowden added.

So what exactly is GVHD?

“We’re transplanting an immune system. It’s that transplanted immune system, the graft, that does the rejecting against the host,” says Dr. Corey Cutler, Vice President of the American Society for Transplantation and Cellular Therapy.

Pharmaceutical companies like Sanofi Pasteur have worked on developing medication to help suppress the immune system’s response to GVHD.

When symptoms are mild, steroids are often the first line of defense, but it’s more than just medication necessary for the more than 15,000 people living with GVHD.

“For example, staying physically fit and limber is very important. It helps treat and even, perhaps, prevent some of the musculoskeletal or joint complications associated with the disease,” Dr. Cutler continued.

Cowden’s parents formed the Meredith A. Cowden Foundation in 2007. Cowden serves as its Patient Advocacy Director.

“There are so many different ways that you can support yourself and one of those ways is really gathering information and learning about the disease and what signs and symptoms to look for so then you can provide that information to your treatment team,” explained Cowden.

Graft vs. Host Disease can have more than a physical impact on patients. It also takes quite a toll emotionally and financially.

By the way, next Friday the 17 is the inaugural National GVHD Awareness Day.

For more information about GVHD and Meredith A. Cowden Foundation, visit their website.