Considering Bone Marrow Donation
Would you sit in a chair for five hours to fight cancer? Of course, right?
OK, now let’s say that you had to be hooked up to a machine for those five hours via a needle in your arm. Nobody likes needles, but for me, it’s still a no-brainer.
The last layer — would you take medication for a few days beforehand that made you feel like you had a mild case of the flu? You probably get sick 2-3 times a year — might as well turn one of those instances into a cancer fighter, right?
OK, you say, you’re in. How do you start?
Why I Registered
My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer in the fall of 2003. She opted for a full mastectomy and made a complete recovery. Luckily, I was just across town and was able to spend time with her while she recuperated.
My cousin was next. The mother of three elementary school-aged kids, she twice fought off non-Hodgkin lymphoma (2007, 2010). The second time, the disease had progressed to stage 4. She underwent an autologous transplant while her children faced the very real possibility of life without a mom. Now, she’s in full remission and runs marathons.
Cancer came for my dad next. In the spring of 2008, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer at the age of 58. By the summer, his oncologists unearthed an even bigger threat: stage 2 Hodgkin lymphoma.
Dad opted for aggressive treatment and underwent 12 rounds of chemo. There were some rough patches. I have vivid memories of helping him deal with side effects in the days following his treatments.
He’s a fighter, though, and made it to the end. He has had no signs of recurrence since.
So far, my family is 3-0 vs. cancer. I hope that we never face the disease again, but the odds are that sooner or later, we’ll step back into the ring.
That’s why I will do anything I can to fight this pernicious disease.
Getting the Call
I joined the bone marrow registry in the spring of 2009, a few months after my dad completed chemo.
In 2011, I received a phone call. I was a match. The person on the phone asked if I would consider donating. I didn’t think twice. I just asked what they needed me to do.
There are two ways to donate marrow to a patient. The first option is to stick a needle into a dense bone, typically the hip, to extract the bone marrow within.
The second option is to harvest peripheral blood stem cells via an aphaeresis machine (it’s similar to the machine used for dialysis treatment). For my patient, they decided that the second option would be best.
Preparing For the Transplant
Before I could donate, I went through a battery of tests for two reasons: (1) confirm whether I was a “good enough” match, and (2) better understand my health and identify any potential red flags. That took about a week.
After that, I had filgrastim injections for a week leading up to my donation. Essentially, filgrastim is a medication that helps increase and move more blood-forming cells from your bone marrow to your bloodstream.
While filgrastim isn’t my idea of a party, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what someone in need of a marrow transplant goes through. I had some achy bones and fatigue — nothing I couldn’t handle. Since the donation site was in my hometown, I was able to work right up until donation day.
Would I Do It Again?
On the day of my donation, I went to USCF Medical Center in San Francisco. Healthcare providers there connected me to the aphaeresis machine to filter my blood. It took about five hours.
That’s it. I felt better almost immediately. After donating, I no longer needed filgrastim, so no more swollen bones. I donated on a Friday and was back at work on Monday.
I never got a chance to meet the recipient. The report I received was that his body accepted my marrow. Last I heard, about a year later, he was doing fine.
Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.
Should you do it? That’s a personal choice, and I won’t pressure you, but I’d highly recommend it.
You might give a mother back to her children or help a dying man see many more sunsets. Anything that disrupts cancer is a win in my book.