Be the Match

I have successfully completed my last chemo session! It ended up being one of the rougher sessions, but I’m definitely on the upswing now and am very happy that this phase of treatment is over. I’m looking forward to becoming more active over the next few weeks. I’m very fortunate that I’ll be able to return to almost all the activities that I did before (and hopefully more). There is one thing I won’t be able to do anymore though: donate blood.

I doubt many people know this, but I’ve been a regular blood donor since college. One of the first signs that something was wrong with me was when my blood donation in February was rejected due to anemia. It’s not highly unusual for women to be anemic, so while I thought it was strange, I didn’t think much of it at the time. That ended up being the first sign that something was off with my body. A couple months later, my friend Britni had posted that she had been selected as a bone marrow match after seven years of being in the bone marrow registry. She unfortunately was unable to donate since she was pregnant with twins, but she posted on her Facebook page registration instructions at Marrow.org, hoping she would inspire others to join the registry as well. It worked, because that night I requested a kit. Since my husband is in the military, I’m a Department of Defense dependent and I requested my kit through a special program at DODmarrow.org. Ironically, the day after my kit arrived, I went to the ER for chest pains, which eventually led to my cancer diagnosis. When I got the reminder email that I was due for my next blood donation a few weeks later from the Blood and Tissue Center of Central Texas, I let them know I had been diagnosed with lymphoma and was notified that I’ll be ineligible to donate blood or tissue indefinitely. However, like Britni, I’m hoping others will learn about blood and bone marrow donation through me and be inspired to donate as well.

Despite (or maybe because of) my history as a blood donor, I never thought of myself as someone who might actually need a blood or tissue donation. That is, until a few weeks after my diagnosis when I ran across a story about a Scottish rugby player named Chris Mallett. I have no idea what I Googled, or how it came up in my search, but I clicked on it as soon as I saw it because he shared a name with a friend of mine from college. Chris was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s when he was 20 and had been fighting it off and on for three years. At the end of the interview, he said he was in remission and hoped to return to rugby. I wondered what he was doing now and if he had done any charitable work related to Hodgkin’s. I even entertained the idea of trying to connect with him on Facebook if I could find his page. Unfortunately, I found out Chris was one of the ones that didn’t make it. I was shocked and even cried for this young man I never knew. I had actually never heard of anyone dying from Hodgkin’s before that. As a Hodgkin’s fighter, you comfort yourself knowing that survival rates are more than 90 percent if caught early, and still pretty high even in higher stages. It was easy to forget about the people in that remaining 10 percent. The ones that don’t make it.

Although I wasn’t able to find a ton of information on Chris’s exact situation, part of the reason he didn’t survive is because he needed a bone marrow transplant. Chris was of mixed-raced descent, which makes the chances of finding a bone marrow match even lower than normal. I believe he eventually found a match, but since his disease was so advanced he ultimately lost his six-year battle with Hodgkin’s in 2006 at age 26. From the information I could find, it was obvious that Chris inspired his community and many people became joined the bone marrow registry because of his story.

I know I can sit here on my soap box preaching about how everyone should donate blood and join the bone marrow registry, but you’re probably thinking, “Geez, it’s easy for her to say since she’s ineligible… but I read about her bone marrow biopsy and that s*** hurt!” You are totally correct. I made no secret that my bone marrow biopsy was somewhat traumatic for me, but every situation in unique and my experience is not going to be the same as every cancer patient’s experience, and what a donor goes through is not going to be the same as what I went through either.

To give you another perspective, a friend of mine from college, Amber, was kind enough to write about her experience for this blog post:

I try to donate blood fairly regularly. The needle doesn’t bother me at all, and I feel like it’s really quick and easy community service. It’s so easy for me (and everyone), but it’s impact is immeasurable. A few years ago, I was at a blood drive in a local mall when I was asked to join the Bone Marrow Donor Registry. All they needed to do was swab my cheek to collect a cell sample. How can you say no to that?

I always wanted to be called because I wanted to save a life. Sometimes we want to do something for others and make some lasting impact, and I just felt this was a good way to do it. Again, sounds easy so how can you say no?  Too bad the chances of finding a match are very slim. On average, one in every 540 of the members in the Be The Match Registry in the U.S. will go on to donate. This is not annually; this is over the entire time they are in the registry. This number is very small considering the number of people needing transplants, and the fact that the Be The Match to Registry and other registries worldwide allow access to nearly 16.5 million possible donors.

Miraculously, in March of 2012, five years later, I received a phone call out on the softball field while taking team pictures informing me that I was a top five candidate match. I know people who have been in the registry for 15 years and never even been called as a possible match. At this point the possible processes of donation were described to me.

Bone Marrow:  The process most people are familiar with involves a large hollow needle being inserted into the hip area of the donor into the femur to extract the bone marrow.

Donation of Peripheral Blood Stem Cells:  This process is currently not FDA approved and in trials. It seems to be less invasive for both parties and produces better success, but as I said, it is still in trials. I am now part of this trial.  The donor receives injections of a drug called Filgrastim that makes the marrow of the donor produces more cells.  This is a drug that is FDA approved and used in treating cancer patients themselves. On the fifth day of injections, the donation is made through a process called aphaeresis. The blood is taken from one arm, put through a machine to take out the extra stem cells to be donated, and returned to the donor through the opposite arm.

In order to determine if I was the best match, I had to go to a blood donation center about fifteen minutes from my house to have blood drawn for testing. Two weeks later I received a phone call telling me that I was THE match for the candidate. I was given very few details (gender, age, and cancer type) of the patient to whom I would be donating.  I was also informed that I would not be able to meet the patient for at least a year and only if the patient wants to.

I then had to travel to Houston (about 2 hours from my home) for more blood testing and a physical. Once I was cleared, dates were set for the donation. For the first injections, I again had to drive to Houston, but the second, third, and fourth, a woman came to my home to give me the injections. For five days I received these injections, and on the fifth day my cells were harvested. Because my marrow was working harder, my bones and major joints were in a lot of pain. Also, the day of the donation was difficult because I had to spend over six hours in the same position.

Some people may be scared off by the amount of blood given for testing, the bone discomfort, and the donation itself… but the mild discomfort and inconveniences are nothing when you consider what someone suffering from cancer and their family goes through. What I went through is nothing, a paper cut, a stubbed toe, a sniffle, in comparison. To me it seems like a no-brainer to join the registry and sacrifice some blood and a couple of days of time to SAVE A LIFE and give someone back their mother or father, spouse, child, or best friend.  Also, you are compensated meals, expenses, mileage, hotel stays, missed work, etc. as necessary.  Again, HOW CAN YOU SAY NO?

As it has not yet been a year, I have not met my recipient. I do know however, that somewhere, my immune system is giving someone else a chance at life, and that thought makes me feel amazing. I am so glad I was given this opportunity, and I hope that I can help other people learn more about becoming part of the Bone Marrow Donor Registry and inspire them to join and SAVE A LIFE.

 

Amber while bravely donating her marrow.

Go to http://www.bethematch.org to learn more.

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The Champions of Cancer

I just had my fifth chemo treatment out of six yesterday and I’m feeling okay all things considered. My fourth chemo treatment probably went the best out of all of them so far and I was able to work an unprecedented four days last week and three days this week! I’ve also received approval to telecommute, so that should help me put a few more hours under my belt and keep my brain more active.

In other news, how about those Olympics? I’m completely obsessed. Not as obsessed as my good friend over at www.ParkerWishik.com, but so obsessed that I’m inspired to dedicate my whole entry to this topic today. Instead of focusing on the amazing achievements demonstrated by Olympians such as U.S. all-around golden gymnast Gabby Douglas (love her!) and record-breaking U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps, I wanted to focus on a few Olympians that have claimed victory over cancer. I mean seriously, how awesome is that? I know at a time when I feel like my body is rebelling against me and it takes all the motivation I have to walk down the block, its amazing to see these cancer defeating Olympians go on to achieve what other, completely healthy people, only dream about. I think being sick during the Olympics has been a huge blessing and has really helped me evaluate what I want to achieve physically during and after treatment.

Some nice folks at the American Cancer Society helped me compiled a list of current Olympians who have dealt with the Big-C.

One of the most notable is Jake Gibb, a U.S. beach volleyball player, who is both a two-time Olympian and two-time survivor of skin and testicular cancer. U.S. swimmer Eric Shanteau, a 2008 and 2012 Olympian, also defeated testicular cancer and is very involved in cancer awareness now. He cites his cancer as one of the reasons he keeps competing, he wants to set an example for other cancer survivors out there. Petr Koukal, a Czech badminton player, also overcame testicular cancer to compete in this year’s Olympics in London. 

U.S shooter Matt Emmons, a 2004 Athens Gold Medalist and 2008 Beijing Silver Medalist in the prone position, successfully battled and won against thyroid cancer in 2010 and is back for his third Olympics. As a fellow shooter myself, I really love Matt’s story because his career is full of highs and lows and he has a great attitude about it. Emmon’s philosophy is that it doesn’t matter if you make mistakes, your dream is still there and is still achievable, but at the end of the day there’s more to life than sports. I think it’s an attitude we can all learn from, whether its athletic, academic or professional setbacks we’re obsessing over.

Some former Olympians have also battled the Big-C.

This almost goes without saying, but to start with famous U.S. cyclist and fellow Central Texan Lance Armstrong placed 14th in the 1992 Olympics. In 1996, he discovered he had Stage III testicular cancer that spread to his lungs, abdomen and brain. He not only survived, but went on to become a seven time Tour de France champion. He also founded Livestrong, a charitable foundation that has become a tremendous resource for cancer patients around the country and world, including myself. Obviously he’s been marked by controversy in recent years, but no matter how I feel about him personally, I think his story still serves as an inspiration to many and he’s done a lot to help the cancer community.

Scott Hamilton participated in the 1980 Winter Olympics and won gold in men’s figure skating in 1984. He also went on to found and perform in Stars on Ice, which is how I know him from my childhood. I was completely enthralled by his signature back flip. What makes his story even more impressive is that he survived both testicular cancer and a benign brain tumor on his pituitary gland. In this video from I am Second, he discusses how he actually considers his health problems blessings because they shaped who he is as a person. I’m not sure if I’m quite there yet with my own diagnosis, but I will say it has taught me an appreciation of how many blessings I do have.

Last, but certainly not least, is this blog post’s only female spotlight: Shannon Miller. If you know of any other female cancer-surviving Olympians please share! Shannon was one of my idols growing up and I find her a great inspiration today as well for different reasons. While most female gymnasts are lucky to have one shot at the Olympics due to grueling training requirements and a young peak age for the sport, Shannon  competed in two and became the most decorated American gymnast ever. She earned the all-around individual silver, beam silver, floor bronze, bars bronze and all-around team bronze in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. She also famously lead the “Magnificent 7” to Team USA’s first defeat over Russia in female gymnastics for the all-around team gold in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, a victory that I’m sure is seared on everyone 20-30 year old woman’s brain. She also landed the beam gold that year. Shannon went on to become a law school graduate, entrepreneur, wife and mother. She also became an outspoken, cancer-surviving advocate for women’s health.

Shortly after Shannon launched Shannon Miller Lifestyle & Fitness in July 2010, she was diagnosed with a rare germ-cell cervical cancer known as “the silent killer” in January 2011. She subsequently had a baseball-sized ovarian tumor and ovary removed, and underwent nine weeks of chemotherapy. She bravely and openly documented her illness through her website, blog and media interviews. She’s partnered with the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition to create awareness and encourage early detection for cervical cancer through PSAs. She also wrote an eBook called Competing With Cancer that is downloadable free from her website. I could go on and on about how much she has done for women’s health in recent years, but I’m sure you can find that information for yourself.

The common thread among these great Olympians is they didn’t let their cancer stop them from achieving further greatness. They used their disease as an opportunity to continue to inspire others. I hope you feel as inspired by them as I do.