Pledging My Axe to the Fight Against Cancer

Whoa hey! Guess what I got in the mail today? My genetic testing kit for joining the National Marrow Donor Program, that’s what! I’m taking a break from flash fiction today to tell you more about the experience. I’ve discussed leukemia and bone marrow donation in the past, and am very excited to invite you along for the ride.

I like to think of it like that scene in Fellowship of the Ring where Gimli, Legolas, and Aragorn pledge their weapons to fight Sauron. The Fellowship of the Ring is a fellowship to destroy the Ring. In the same way, becoming a donor is a pledge fight the Enemy with the sword or ax that is your own immune system. Dear Fellowship of Leukemia, you can count me in on that fight.

Check out all the science swag! I got a few pages of directions, two packs of GIANT cotton swabs, and a nifty mailer for sending my DNA in for testing. Collecting my cell sample was very easy. You stick each cotton swab into the inside of your cheek and scrub for 10 seconds. This process rubs off buccal cells, or cheek cells, onto the swab. Repeat it three more times, and you’re done! Here is my completed set of DNA samples, all ready to mail:

DSCN0471

At this point, my part in the process is over. The swabs will go to a laboratory to get tested for protein markers. Those markers will be associated with my donor ID in the donor database. After that, I just go about my life. I may never get called on to donate, but my sample will be on file in case I happen to match someone.

So what happens if I match someone? Bone marrow donation comes in two flavors. The first and most common version is called PBSC donation, which stands for “peripheral blood stem cells”. If this is what the sick person needs, then I’ll receive five days of injections to prep for the donation. The injections will cause my bone marrow to produce an army of extra hematopoeitic or blood-forming stem cells. Think of these cells as raw recruits, able to take on any role necessary in your blood.

After five days, I’ll go into the doctor’s office and go through a procedure called apheresis. This is very similar to giving blood at the Red Cross, except instead of just giving a pint of blood, they’ll run my blood through a machine to separate out all the hematopoeitic stem cells and give me back the rest of my blood. Those of you who’ve participated in a blood drive may have experienced apheresis yourselves; the Red Cross uses this same procedure for plasma and red blood cell donation.

An illustration of bone marrow cells.
An illustration of bone marrow cells. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The second type of bone marrow donation is to extract bone marrow straight from a bone.   If I get asked to do this type of donation, I’ll go into the doctor’s office, receive anesthesia, and then the doctor will use a needle to extract liquid marrow from the iliac crest of my os coxae, or hip bone. If you feel the prominent wings of your hip bones just above your thighs, near your waistband, that’s where the donation comes from. The missing bone marrow will grow back before a month’s past, because the skeletal system is awesome like that.

I’ve noticed that people get a little freaked out when we talk about procedures involving our bones. I think it’s because we’re used to thinking about our bones as something inorganic, sort of like the chassis of a car. If your car gets in an accident, you can get it repaired but it’ll never be the same again. Its structural integrity’s damaged forever. Fortunately, our bones are nothing like that. The human skeletal system is resilient and alive as long as you are. Right at this very moment, your bones are being dissolved and rebuilt to better adapt your body to its daily stresses. Bone remodeling is a fascinating physiological topic, and I plan to discuss it in more depth later this week.

So there you have it: I can now say I am actively doing something about cancer. Who else is fighting cancer? DC Comics superheroes! Check out this heartwarming video on what one hospital is doing to help children with leukemia going through chemotherapy. Warning: it might cause your eyes to sweat.

Hopefully this post has helped clear up some of your questions about bone marrow donation. If I’ve inspired you, click right here and join the registry yourself. Now that Batman’s involved, you’ll be in good company! If you’re already a donor or thinking about signing up, give yourself a shout-out in the comments below, because you are awesome.

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5 thoughts on “Pledging My Axe to the Fight Against Cancer

  1. Do you know if there is an age limit with this program? We were refused in our local hospital because we are over 45 years old.

    1. Hi Richard,
      Great question! From what I understand, it works like this: people between the age of 18-44 can join for free (the program uses donations to pay the costs of processing). People age 45-60 can still join if they meet the other health requirements, but the marrow registry asks that these people pay the processing costs (I believe it’s about $100). The reason behind this rule is that when we get older, the stem cell production in our bone marrow slows down, so that it’s much harder to get the right amount of cells needed to help a sick patient. Because of this, they tend to use mostly donors in the 18-44 bracket.

      If you want to join and the fee’s not a problem for you, you should definitely register through the marrow.org website. They use people in the 45+ age bracket for 10% of all transplants, so people in this age group are still making a very important, life-saving contribution! I know if I were one of that 10% of patients, I would be grateful beyond words. Here’s the info on age and donation directly from the website if you want to read more: http://marrow.org/Join/FAQs_about_Joining.aspx#over44

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