Tag Archives: Bone marrow

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:


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.

Medical Microfiction: Leukocytes

“The Charge of the White Brigade”

“Rodgers, stand down!” I commanded.

Behind his gun, Rodgers sneered. An army of clones swarmed behind him. “Screw that. I don’t take orders anymore. The universe is mine. Surrender.”

I touched my insignia. Meaningless. I’d lost my whole army fighting Rodgers. “The clone multiplication’s destabilized the universe. Your rebellion’s destroying it. We won’t survive the next radioactive shockwave.”

“You’re bluffing.” Rodgers took aim. “Die.”

The universe spoke. Its booming voice threw us to our knees: One more round of chemo. Then the marrow transplant.

I understood. For the universe’s sake, the faithful and corrupt must perish alike. “Rodgers. Please… proceed.”


Fighting Rodgers
Fighting Rodgers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Leukocytes (white blood cells) are your body’s military, responsible for defending the homeland against invaders. Leukemia is a cancer where immature white blood cells proliferate much too rapidly to the point where they crowd out other important cells. It’s a particularly vicious form of cancer. It’s a military coup, if you will. Rodgers is trying to call the shots, and the General’s outgunned.

Fortunately, many forms of leukemia can be treated with a bone marrow transplant. Leukocytes originate in the bone marrow, so if you can replace the marrow, you can stop the abnormal multiplication. It’s like doing a hard reset on your immune system. You nuke all the bone marrow in your body–the good with the bad–and receive bone marrow from a donor, which will regrow and return your leukocytes to factory settings.

There’s something inherently tragic about cancer treatments, in that they’re invariably destructive rather than constructive. Cancer’s hard for your body to fight because from your body’s perspective, the cancer cells look like they belong there. They contain the same identity markers as the other cells produced in your body. Treatments like chemotherapy kill off a lot of harmless cells with the harmful ones. This is why chemo often causes hair loss. The weapon that harms Rodgers also harms his neighbors.

From left to right: erythrocyte, thrombocyte, ...
From left to right: erythrocyte, thrombocyte, leukocyte (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today’s story is an homage to these innocent bystanders in the fight against cancer. Faithful, loyal, sticking to their jobs until the bitter end, these cells must die that the universe be saved. But their sacrifice is not forgotten.

A dear friend of mine will soon be undergoing another round of chemo for her leukemia while she waits for an update on a possible bone marrow match. This is cool: the doctors think they might have a match with someone on another continent! Amazing, huh? I never knew the network extended so far!

I recently joined the National Bone Marrow Donor Program. Please consider joining the registry too, if you meet the requirements. Leukemia is a terrible disease. Somewhere in the world, a much-loved man, woman, or child may be battling Rodgers, and reinforcements from your personal army might be the key to his defeat.

The odds of two people matching is roughly 1 in 20,000, which is why it’s so incredibly important to have lots people on the registry. If you’re between the ages of 18 and 44, the process is 100% free. Just click the link, fill out a short survey about your health, and they’ll mail you some cheek swabs to collect a few of your cells. After that, your data stays on file in case someone who matches you gets sick.

Donation is ridiculously safe and easy. It’s not often that we have the opportunity to help fight cancer in such a tangible way. This will help! Let’s join forces and fight off Rodgers.

If you or someone you know has dealt with/is dealing with cancer, I’d love to hear your story. Let me know in the comments section below!