Tag Archives: Cancer

Motley Microfiction: The Rescue Party

The Rescue Party

On the cancer ward, no one really sleeps at night. It’s the lights. It’s the click and whir of the machines interfacing with your heartbeat.

On the cancer ward, we’re staging a rescue. We’ve bagged some rats. We’ve named them, tamed them, and taught them to dance. We’ve got beer. We’ve got chocolate cookies with bacon. And we’re coming for you.

The elevator doors will open. The rats will roll out like a carpet. We’ll charge from the rear. There’ll be rioting. There’ll be property damage. We’ll probably wake up in jail.

It all goes down at midnight.

Get ready.


North American cover art for PC
Imagine this movie, but with nurses instead of chefs. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today’s link roundup is being postponed until tomorrow due to computer problems. Until then, enjoy today’s piece. It’s a fun  little bit written for my friend who just got her bone marrow transplant and her daughter TJ (one of my best friends) who is camped out at the hospital with her during the recovery process. Word on the street’s that the doctors are happy with the recovery process so far. Here’s hoping, my friend, that it’s better every day from here on out!

In the meantime, I’ve cooked up this little rescue plan in case there’s a need for emergency chocolate in the future. It’s rats carrying bacon-chocolate cookies! What else do you need?

Hope you guys are having a good weekend. What are you looking forward to in the upcoming week?

Medical Microfiction: Remission

The Plague Cicadas

They came flying over the sea: horse-sized insects in battle armor. Eyes like red coals and hungry jaws. They chewed through our trees, our homes, our bodies. Anything the touched, they consumed, heedless of our misery.

But we drove them back in the end.

Victory! We have stacked and burned the bodies of the strange invaders. We have buried our dead and made songs for our heroes.

It’s time to put these dark days behind us. Tonight we celebrate victory.

Apart from the rest of us, one old warrior stands at the ocean’s edge, scanning the horizon with doubtful eyes.


Cicada (Photo credit: plounsbury)

You’ve heard the word remission before, probably in association with cancer. Remission means the subsiding or diminishing of a disease. Full remission is distinct from a cure because while the disease is no longer detectable, there’s always a chance it could reoccur. This is true of many types of cancer, and of some types of bowel disease. Still, even with that distinction, in cases of chronic or incurable diseases remission is great news indeed.

Today I’m happy to report that my wonderful friend, who has been battling acute leukemia since November, got news a few days ago that the leukemia’s completely undetectable in her body for the first time since the battle began. Full remission! And the timing couldn’t be better. Today she’s entering the hospital to begin prepping for her bone marrow transplant next week. There is no better time to do a transplant than when the disease has been so thoroughly beaten into the ground.

The cool thing about bone marrow transplants? When successful, they can actually cure leukemia. Not just put it into full remission; cure it. That’s why I’m so enthusiastic about the bone marrow registry and highly encourage you to consider joining it, or the branch in the country you live in.

I think cicadas make for a good metaphor for remission. Cicadas have a unique life cycle. They spend years and years living underground and only emerge to mate, lay eggs, and die. Then their grubs go underground for up to 17 years before they emerge again. As with any incurable disease, they’re likely to reappear after being completely gone for years and years.

This year marked the return of one cicada brood up and down the East Coast of the United States. They’re remarkable insects, cicadas. Check out this gorgeous video for a real treat. Make it big, and set it to HD for best enjoyment:

Beautiful. Have you ever witnessed a brood of cicadas emerge? I wanted to drive around and look for one this year, but just barely missed the window!

Medical Microfiction: Apoptosis

Mother Knows Best

Mike mimicked his mother’s tremulous voice: “‘Be safe. Call me the moment you get there.’” She must think he’d jump off a cliff if she didn’t mention safety to him. He stomped the accelerator. And why did he have to phone her, anyway? The ritual was so superstitious. As if not calling would break some spell.

He seethed with teenage rebellion. So when he reached the theater, Mike conveniently “forgot” to call his mom. Minutes passed. He was halfway across the parking lot when he dissolved with a pop into a squirming heap of frogs, snails, and puppy tails.


Apoptosis: a cell suicide program. (Photo credit: Futurama)

Why do cells die? It sounds like an obvious question. All things die eventually. But why do cells die, if they haven’t been traumatized or diseased? The answer lies in apoptosis, which is the medical term for programmed cell death. Every cell in your body comes with a “use-by” date of sorts, a built-in suicide program. When the proper signal reaches the cell, it self-destructs, and its parts are recycled by your body.

Today’s story illustrates one way apoptosis might occur. For Mike, a phone call to his mom acts as a signal that it’s not Apoptosis Day for him. If he doesn’t make the call, the process is interrupted and he self-destructs into his raw materials.

And as we know, boys are made of frogs, snails and puppy tails.

Apoptosis sounds like an awfully violent process at first. I don’t relish the idea that my cells are exploding willy-nilly when I could still get a little more mileage out of ’em. But it’s better to think of it like leaves dropping off a tree. Sometimes you just need to shed cells when you’re done with them. In fact, that’s what the word literally means: “dropping off”, as of with leaves.

The effect of lack of programmed cell death (S...
The effect of lack of programmed cell death (Specifically apoptosis) on the toes of a human. A mutation caused the middle two toes to remain connected. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This regular suicide program serves an important function in the body. When cells age, mutations are more likely to occur, which would then be passed to the next generation of cells. In fact, when a mutation occurs that prevents a cell from undergoing apoptosis, it often leads to mutations, cancer, and autoimmune disease. The immortal cell starts multiplying like crazy, and will not respond to the body’s signals to stop.

Interestingly, chemotherapy works because it forces the target cells to self-destruct. It makes me think of ninjas breaking into a fortress at night to administer poison to the bad guys.

Moral of the story: listen to your mom.

Was/is your mom much like Mike’s? What’s the best advice you’ve gotten from your mother, or someone in your life who’s like a mother?

The Penniless Altruist’s Guide to Saving Lives

“I was sick, and you looked after me.” — Matthew 25:36

So you’re an altruist. You’ve seen the commercials with the sick puppies and sick children asking you to please help. But you’re also broke. You’re a student, maybe, or on a tight budget, or perhaps you already give money to another good cause.

You’re not Hermione. But you can still help. (Photo credit: ursulakm)

You wish you could help, but don’t think there’s much you can do. You’re not a doctor, a scientist, or even a wizard; there’s nothing you can do to cure someone’s heart disease or cancer.

But what if I told you that right now, you can contribute to the health and well-being of a total stranger for free? Guess what: your own body’s already producing several things that would make a difference.

I now present my round-up of 10 free things you can do to heal the world using your own body. All of these things are free, and most are also low-effort and require very little time. How’s that for a win-win situation?

  1. Give blood. The Red Cross hosts periodic blood drives in most cities. They also have physical donor centers where you can drop by any time and make a donation. My husband Jason donates every two months because of his high-demand blood type, and he loves the organization and the experience.
  2. Become an Organ and/or Cornea Donor. If you’re not already an organ donor, here’s instructions on how to join the team. While 95% of Americans support organ donation, only 45% are actually registered. This is a problem, as the waiting list for organs such as kidneys, hearts, livers, and lungs is depressingly long. I love knowing that my last act in life will be to leave a legacy of life for others. While you’re at it, share your donor status on Facebook!
  3. Join the Bone Marrow Registry. I’ve talked about this process ad nauseum because it’s simple, free, and it lets you freakin’ cure someone’s cancer. How cool is that? It’s also one of the simplest things to do on this list as it only takes about 15 minutes to sign up, and the testing process happens by mail.
  4. Donate Cord Blood. This one’s for pregnant ladies only. Many hospitals accept donated umbilical cords containing cells that can cure leukemia the way bone marrow donations do. The best part? The umbilical cord’s just biological waste anyway, so you’re recycling! How cool would it be to give birth and cure cancer, all in the same day? To donate, discuss it with your doctor or midwife and find out if the hospital you’re delivering at accepts donations.
  5. Donate your hair. Several organizations collect hair to make wigs for cancer patients. Locks of Love is the most well-known. I love this option for so many reasons. I think it would make for a fun and awesome activity to do as a family as they can accept any hair of the right length. Kids can do it, and gray hair’s fine too! Just go to the hair dresser when your mane’s long enough and get that ponytail lopped off. See the website for all the details.
  6. Donate your body to science. Similar to organ donation, except the whole body will be used for medical research or for teaching medical students. I worked with human cadavers while learning anatomy, and it was one of the most deeply moving experiences of my life. I am so grateful to people who give this ultimate gift. Now you can’t donate your organs and your body; it’s a one-or-the-other proposition. But there are some good reasons to consider body donation. Perhaps you love the idea of going to med school! Perhaps due to your medical history, your organs wouldn’t be usable for transplants. Also, you usually get a free cremation in the bargain (I’m not one to look down on the benefits!). You can donate directly to universities or through various mediators.
  7. Volunteer for medical studies. If you live near a university, I guarantee that their science and health departments run experiments that need volunteers. Last summer, I participated in a study comparing the way women of different weights metabolize vitamins like folic acid. I hung out in the research lab all day, taking vitamins and watching movies while they collected my data. I made some new friends, too! The best part about volunteering for medical studies is that they often pay you for your time. Make sure you only volunteer through reputable organizations that are accountable to review boards that ensure you’re not doing anything dangerous. The National Institute of Health offers this program if you don’t live near a university.
  8. Donate unused prescription drugs. I cheated; this one doesn’t involve something you make with your own body. Leftover prescription drugs can be recycled and donated for use by sick people who can’t afford them. These programs are regional and vary from state to state. Contact your local Health Department for information.
  9. If you’re able to do any of the above, brag about it. Brag loudly, in the hearing of many people. Brag obnoxiously, until your friends disown you. Share what you’ve done on Facebook, Twitter, or wherever you lurk. It sounds strange that tooting your own horn is on my list of altruistic deeds, but seriously, it’s actually quite helpful. We need to normalize donations and overcome what I like to call the “I’ll-do-it-tomorrow hump”. We need to make everyone else jealous so they give it a shot too. That means talking about it lots.
  10. Share this list. Some people will not be able to make the donations on this list because of personal circumstances. That’s completely understandable — don’t feel bad! But one thing you can do is pass on the word. Post this list on your favorite social media, or mention these things to your family and friends.

This list isn’t comprehensive. In fact, if you’ve got more ideas, please share them in the comments below! If I can get another list together I’ll share your ideas in a follow-up post. Also, many of the links I’ve shared only apply to people living in the United States. If you live in another country and can share links to your national programs, please post them. I’d love to add them to this post for everyone’s benefit. What else can you think of that would save a life today?

Medical Microfiction: Metastasize


“Let’s build it in Kansas,” they said! “It’s the middle of nowhere,” they said!

Some geniuses they turned out to be. Sure, it’s isolated. I’ll give you that. If you’re going to build Area 52, what better place than the most boring stretch of farmland in America?

But really, it’s Kansas. Didn’t anyone consider the weather?

They built it anyway. Two months after the ribbon-cutting ceremony, an EF4-level tornado made short work of the holding pen roof, sending all the test subjects spiraling into the funnel.

The apocalypse began two hours later, when 500 angry zombies rained down on Wichita.


Today’s story illustrates the word metastasize, which describes the spread of a cancer from one organ or location to another one. Cancer’s a frequent topic here at Medical Microfiction because it’s a disease that may touch all of our lives at some point, whether it touches one of us directly or a loved one. We find it in our deepest fears and embedded in our books and movies.

Although we hear about cancer often, it’s rare that anyone bothers to explain how cancer works, its treatments, and the words used to discuss it. This is a problem because the unknown holds greater power over us than the known. We’re afraid of the monster under the bed.

In the past, I’ve written about leukemia, bone marrow donation, and graft-versus-host disease to  help clear the waters. Today we turn our attention to a general concept related to cancer: metastasis.

English: The Hesston, Kansas tornado of March ...
The ultimate zombie-dispersal mechanism. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To explain it, let’s take breast cancer as an example. It begins when cells in the breast tissue multiply at an abnormal rate. These cells create the stereotypical “lump” in the breast that’s the first tip-off that you’ve got a problem. That’s bad. Metastasis ups the ante. Cells from the cancerous tumor break off into the bloodstream or lymphatic system and use them as highways to spread to other parts of the body. What was once just breast cancer is now also liver cancer or bone cancer.

Think of this process like the zombies in today’s story. As long as the zombies are contained to Area 52, you’ve got a lid on the problem. They’re easy to exterminate. But when the zombies take to the sky and rain down all over Kansas, it’s going to be much, much harder to control the outbreak. The zombies have metastasized.

Explains my recurring zombie nightmares, I suppose.

Monsters Inc
What does the monster under your bed look like? (Photo credit: Cyberslayer)

I know cancer isn’t the most cheerful of topics, but I want to demystify it so that you know exactly what the invisible fear looks like. I’m shining a flashlight under the bed. The monster may be there, but once you see it, you know exactly what you’re dealing with, and you can pick the right tools to combat it. Maybe it’s a little smaller, a little less scary than you expected.

For anyone interested in the practical approach, remember that you can personally become a cancer-slaying zombie hunter by joining the Bone Marrow Registry. I mention this program a lot on my blog because it’s both an easy and practical way to do something. Each of us has within our own bodies the potential to be someone’s unique cure for cancer, but there’s no way you’d know it unless you sign up.

What sorts of things scare you? Do you think the unknown is scarier than the known?

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!