Monthly Archives: April 2012

Transplant 101

INTRO TO STEM TRANSPLANT

“Intro to Stem Transplant.”  That was the name of the class I took a couple of weeks ago at MD Anderson.  I didn’t get any college credit nor was there a test at the end to show that I passed the course.  I didn’t even have to take it, it was totally optional.  This optional hour and a half class ended up making me think the hardest about anything since I started my battle against non-Hodgkins lymphoma.  It made me ask myself, “Why them and not me?”  I know that sounds weird being that I’m going through this cancer battle and that maybe the question should be inverted, i.e. “why me and not them?”  Let me explain.

You see, this class was simply about information.  Information for stem cell transplant candidates and their caregivers about what to expect and how to prepare the best way possible for the inescapable leave of absence from our homes.  Information about what exactly is a stem cell transplant, types of transplants, health risks, and the list goes on and on.  I was alone in this class and that fact was not lost on me.  Everyone else had someone: a spouse, sibling, son, daughter, caregiver.  It was nobody’s fault I was alone as my father was waiting in the lobby since English is not his forte.  My husband was stuck back home working for the medical insurance I still so desperately need.  In hindsight, I think it was better that I was alone.  It allowed me to really listen to the plight of the people around me.  Yes, my plight is dire but, believe it or not, some of my peers that day in that very room have it much worse.

AUTOLOGOUS VS. ALLOGENEIC

I’ve been asked time and again since I first let people know about my upcoming stem cell transplant if they could somehow be a donor and told that if i needed their bone marrow, they would gladly give it.  I feel so lucky to have people around me that are so giving that they would literally give a part of themselves just for me.  Truly humbling stuff.  I’ll tell you why else I feel so lucky.  For reasons still unbeknownst to me, I don’t need a donor.  That’s right.  The stem cells I’ll be receiving will be from my own blood.  The transplant I’ll be having is an autologous transplant. In short, I’ll get hooked up to an apheresis machine (which resembles a dialysis machine) that will filter the stem cells from my blood and then they’ll freeze those stem cells.  After a high-dose chemo session to stop bone marrow production, those cells will then be placed back into my blood stream with the hope that they will find their way back to the bone marrow and start to reproduce normally.  Its all relatively painless except for that pesky little thing called chemotherapy, or rat poison as I like to call it.

Apheresis: Stem Cell Transplant

There were several people that day in my class that aren’t so lucky.  They need an allogeneic transplant which, you guessed it, requires a donor.  I used to think stem cell transplants were solely for leukemia patients, but I’ve since learned otherwise.  Its also used to treat other cancers such as lymphoma, myeloma, and breast cancer and other non-cancer diseases such as sickle cell anemia, aplastic anemia, various immune-defficiency diseases, and the list goes on.  That day in class, there was a diverse group of us with lymphoma, myeloma, and leukemia.  The instructor asked us to raise our hands if we were having an auto transplant.  Only about half of us raised our hands.  The rest were set to have a donor transplant.  HALF THE CLASS.  That was the moment I found myself asking the question:  “Why them and not me?”

It then became apparent as the class wore on that the chances of finding a donor in the National Bone Marrow Registry or Be The Match, are bleak.  Just as only half my class raised their hand, statistically only half of that remaining half will find a donor.  A quarter of my peers that day in that class won’t find a donor.  According to Be The Match, 10,000 patients worldwide need a bone marrow transplant but only half will receive one.  I almost lost it in class as this horrible truth reared its ugly head right in my face.  I couldn’t imagine the stress that I’d already been experiencing only to be made worse by hoping for a donor, hoping to find that one perfect match that could save my life.  Unimagineable.

THE CHALLENGE.

I left that day with mixed feelings.  Relief at the fact that I don’t need a donor.  Sorrow for those that do.  Anger at the fact that half of them won’t find their perfect match.  Most of all, I felt propelled.  I HAD to do something, even in my own small way.  I went online straightaway to find more information on this whole stem cell donor business.  After perusing the many pages of Be The Match, it was clear.  If people were asking me if I needed a donor, why not have them make good on that and become a donor on the national registry?  Why not try to get more people added onto that list?  Why not?

I knew who I had to ask first.  As soon as I got back into town, I sat my husband down.  I told him about the people I’d met and how lucky we were that I didn’t need a donor.  I didn’t have to ask and he didn’t hesitate.  He immediately asked what he needed to do to be put on the national donor registry.  Needless to say, I was overjoyed!  Be it whether he gets a match or not one day, its enough to know that he is willing to save a stranger’s life.  He put it best in this way, “If it were you, I’d want someone to save your life.”

After this conversation, I knew more could be done.  If my husband would do it in my honor, how many others would do it too?  After all, I could have VERY easily fallen into this category of needing a donor transplant.  That could have been me.  And I’ll take it a step further, make it a little more uncomfortable in here.  You reading this now, yes you my loyal reader, it could be you.  Your spouse, your child, your parent, your best friend, your neighbor, or (ahem) your favorite Zumba instructor.  Cancer knows no bounds and has no respect for those we hold dearest.  By the way, if you’re a minority such as Hispanic, African-American, Asian, Indian, or Islander, your chances of finding a match have just been cut down again.  This Mexican-American right here would be up a creek right about now.  There aren’t enough registry members of diverse racial and ethnic heritage so adding more diverse members increases the likelihood that all patients will find a life-saving match.

So here it is, the challenge:  I challenge you (yes, you!) to save a life.  Get your name added to the national bone marrow registry today, don’t wait.  Save a life in your lifetime.  Why not?  What do you have to lose besides a few replenishable cells?

Yeah I did it.  I busted out the sad puppy, Sarah McLachlan-esque sob-inducing video to further my cause.  So sue me.  But then get your name on the bone marrow registry.  Visit Be The Match and see just how simple the process really is.

P.S.

I’ll be posting pictures soon of my adorable husband with his self-kit from Be The Match to prove just how easy it is.  Cheek (face…just clarifying) + cotton swab = nationally registered donor.  It really is that simple!

P.S.S.

I want to see your pictures too.  Hey I need proof!!

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Sympathy vs. Empathy

I’ve come to a most startling realization: its not all about me.  Pfft!  Yeah.  I know.  How can that be?  And by “it”, I mean the world and it does not revolve around me.  I am not the Sun.  I’ve got a newfound sense of tiny-ness.  I’ve been handed a huge slice of humble pie and that stuff is hard to swallow let alone digest.  I think you get the picture.  Don’t get me wrong, I never really thought the world revolved around me but I was just fooling myself to think that I had even a remote idea of what went on in the lives of people around me.

You see, I always thought of myself as a basically ‘good’ person.  I would give a few bucks to the homeless guy on the corner (sometimes, when I was feeling especially philanthropic).  I would make a sad, sympathetic face when people told me of their troubles and nod as if I knew what they were feeling or as if I really cared.  I mean, I cared but I never really cared.  You know what I mean?  We’re taught (hopefully most of us) as we grow up to be respectful of others, to be kind, to be sympathetic but is it enough?  Myself, I had sympathy down to an art form but I never bothered with empathy.  What’s the difference?

sympathy – Feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.

empathy – The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Can you have one without the other?  I believe you can be sympathetic without feeling empathetic and I would even venture to say that empathy cannot exist without sympathy.  Anyone can be sympathetic to someone else’s plight.  Being empathetic?  Not so easy.  My problem with feeling true empathy for somebody was that, unfortunately, I simply did not understand suffering and sadness until I went through it myself.  This is not to say that this has to happen for someone to feel empathy for others, but in my case, this was definitely true.

Up until January of 2011, my life had been ideal.  I’d never experienced any personal health problems.  I’d never had anybody close to me suffer a serious illness or pass away.  My marriage was (and still is, thank God) wonderful.  I’d never really grieved for anything.  How was I supposed to ever feel any kind of empathy for anybody?  I was empathetically challenged.  As I started to hurtle into darkness and pain with my own health problems, my eyes (both physically and spiritually) were being opened.  My life was turned upside-down and I began to feel what others had described to me long before I ever imagined I would go through it myself.  In fact, I never imagined I would go through it myself.  These things just didn’t happen to me yet there it was, happening to me.

It was the slap in the face that I needed to wake up;  THE pivotal moment in my life where I either embraced it or ran from it.  The moment where I either got it or I didn’t.  I get it now.  I get what pain feels like.  I get what loss feels like.  Anger, fear, resentment, sadness, denial.  Heartbreak. Ohhhh, heartbreak.  They call it heartbreak because it really does feel like your heart is broken; it hurts in your chest.  Your heart throbs in pain and in protest.  These are all things I would never wish on another human being and they’re things that I can’t help but feel all over again when someone in my life is suffering.  These feelings wash over me like a tidal wave and brings their pain front and center.  It is the hardest lesson I’ve learned up to this point but I would never take it back.  It was necessary and I’m grateful even.  I’m grateful that I don’t have to act anymore when I look someone in the eye and tell them that I’m sorry and that it isn’t fair.  I no longer feel like a fraud when I hold someone’s hand or hug them in consolation of their grief.  I’m grateful that I’ve learned its not about me.  Empathy is not about me, its about the person on the receiving end.

Along with my newfound sense of tiny-ness, there’s a stirring in my heart that I’ve never felt before. Its the whole reason I began this blog in the first place.  Sympathy alone does not drive a person to do good for others.  Sympathy alone does not drive a person to fight for a cause.  But empathy! Empathy can end slavery, can start movements.  Empathy can drive One to die on a cross for the sin of the world and carry the weight of it all upon His own back.  That’s the empathy I hope to feel even an ounce of for others.  There’s a worship song with a particular line that describes this sentiment exactly:

Break my heart for what breaks Yours.

What breaks God’s heart?  The world is bleeding and He knows the pain firsthand.  He experienced all the pain and suffering as He walked this earth in human form and died bleeding on a cross.  He knows our pain all too well and it breaks His heart to see our own heartbreak.  My heart now seeks for Him to break it for the things that break His own;  to break my heart for His cause.

You might be one of the enlightened lucky ones that feels empathy for others without having had to go through your own desert and I applaud you.  For the record, I am NOT being sarcastic.  I admire those who, own their own, have known how to be truly empathetic to others.  That, unfortunately, was not something I was able to learn on my own.  Empathy is not an easy trait to come by and its not something everyone wants to feel.  Its not pleasant to feel pained for others and its easier to just say you’re sorry and move on.  Who wants to deal with that?  I once thought this way, that it was simply too much ‘drama’ and I could do without it.  It was only by God’s grace that when I started this battle for my life, that many special people in my own life did not run away from the ‘drama’ and stuck around to suffer through it with me.  He led me to a unique group of fearless cancer survivors to show me true empathy.  God had mercy on my once-hardened heart and allowed me to feel the warm embrace of empathy.

I personally don’t want sympathy; I absolutely detest anybody feeling pity for me.  That is the definition of it, isn’t it?  Feeling pity for somebody else’s misfortune?  I’ll pass on that.  I think I speak for anybody that’s ever gone through hard times when I say that pity is the last thing you want to see in somebody’s eyes or hear in somebody’s voice.  Striving for empathy is the only hope in allowing people their dignity in their grief.  Dignity is sometimes the only thing we have left. Sympathy versus empathy?  I think you get the picture.

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