Today is National Cancer Survivors Day! Celebrate with those you love who have beaten this nasty disease and are living full and happy lives. I am proud to be part of such an amazing group of people.
On a separate note, I have recently been in touch with a friend of a friend from college. He posted about an organization he signed up for in college, but has continued to be active in. It is called Be the Match. Basically you do quick cheek swab, send it in, and you can get on a list to possibly match someone who needs bone marrow or stem cells. I’m going to copy and paste Mark’s words to give you a better idea of how it works:
Basically, joining involves either ordering a registration kit (free, but donations requested to offset cost) or attending a registration drive. In either case, a q-tip like tool is used to wipe the inside of the cheek to collect cells for DNA testing. The sample gets sent back to the registry for analysis and entry into their database and stays there permanently. If there is ever a possible match (now or perhaps decades down the road), the registry will attempt to contact the donor for further testing to confirm the match and to see whether or not the potential donor is healthy to donate either bone marrow or stem cells (depends on what the patient’s doctor wants). If the match is confirmed and the donor agrees to donate (no legal obligation at any point), then the donation itself is scheduled and the patient is prepared to accept the donated marrow or stem cells. Once the preparation process begins for the patient, it is extremely important that the donor follow through (though again, there is no legal obligation to do so at any point) because the process of preparing the patient for the donation will injure or kill the patient if the donation is not carried out.
Once a possible match was made, I was asked to take a blood test at a local lab to confirm the match. Once the match was confirmed, I went to Georgetown University Hospital for a full physical and discussions with the donation center there. That led to my being asked to donate stem cells. At that point, I had to wait a few weeks while the process to prepare the patient began (basically intensive chemo/radiation to completely kill off the patient’s bone marrow, hence the risk of death to the patient if the donor doesn’t go through with the donation). About a week before the donation day, I started receiving twice-a-day visits from a nurse who administered a drug to cause my body to start over-producing stem cells. This caused flu-like symptoms for a few days but wasn’t a big deal. On the donation day, I went back to Georgetown University Hospital and was hooked up to an apheresis machine for about two hours. That machine draws blood out of one arm, separates out the stem cells and some plasma, and reinjects the rest back into the other arm. After that was done, I was asked to stay at the hospital for a couple of hours to eat and be observed to make sure there were no complications. At that point, I was released and spent the afternoon out and about with my parents. I had completely recovered from the flu-like symptoms and residual weakness after a few days and was back to all of my normal activities.
A year or two later, the registry staff contacted me to let me know that the transplant had been successful and that the patient (an older lady somewhere in the US) was doing fine. I’ve had no contact with the recipient, but there is a process by which donors and patients are, in some cases but not all, allowed to contact one another if they both wish.
It really wasn’t a big deal to do this for me. The burden and discomfort (not pain) for me was pretty trivial, especially since it helped to save this lady’s life. It is something that I am very glad to have done and would gladly do again if asked. The bone marrow donation process is more time-consuming and painful for the donor, but is being done less and less because the stem cell treatment works well for many patients.
One other thing…it’s important to let the registry know about changes of address. After reading a company newsletter article about a staff member who donated bone marrow, I contacted the registry to update my contact information (I had registered over 10 years before while a fraternity pledge to get spirit points…). I sent the update form in on a Friday and was called on Monday by the registry to let me know that I was a potential match and to see if I was still willing to go through the process.
So there you have it. A quick and easy way to help those who need helping. And if you’re not ready for something on a national level, blood banks love people who want to donate plasma. My husband used to it about once a month before things got crazy around here. It’s a bit like the process Mark was describing above: they take the blood from one arm, take out what they need, and pump it back in the other arm. If you want more information from either Mark or my husband, leave me a comment and I’ll send you an e-mail address for them.