After starting chemotherapy, it became clear that my acute myeloid leukemia (AML) was going to be tough to beat. The chemo would kill it, but it could come back. To lower the chances of this, my doctors suggested I consider a bone marrow transplant.
I made an appointment to learn about the bone marrow transplant process. Afterwards, my care team and I decided that getting a bone marrow donation was the best option for me.
The next step was to find a bone marrow donor.
Finding my bone marrow donor
Both of my younger brothers got tested to see if he could be my bone marrow donor. The best "match" for a donor is one whose cells have the same protein markers as those of the patient.
The more markers that match, the less likely you are to have problems with your body rejecting the transplant after the procedure. Because your protein markers are hereditary, it's more likely that a patient's siblings will have similar markings.
In the end, my middle brother Jeff was my perfect match, so we scheduled his bone marrow donation. Once my AML went into remission, I would undergo the transplant.
I'd heard of bone marrow transplants before my AML diagnosis, but all I'd heard was that it was full of lots of pain and giant needles. I thought it was rarely used and only for unpronounceable diseases I saw in documentaries - not something like leukemia.
Through my own AML treatment, I learned that there are two ways to donate bone marrow -- through either a surgery or a peripheral blood stem cell transplant. My brother ended up undergoing a peripheral blood stem cell donation, which meant no surgery! For five days, he received a few injections to make his marrow cells leave his bones and go into his veins. The bone marrow donation process was just like donating platelets or plasma.
Once the blood was drawn from my brother's arm, it passed through a machine that collects the cells needed for the transplant. The remaining blood was returned to his body through a needle in his other arm. It can take up to eight hours to complete the whole process. Not too long, considering it can save a life.
How you can become a bone marrow donor
When I was first diagnosed with AML, lots of friends and family wanted to help out in some way. We couldn't possibly have taken everyone up on their offers of meals or rides to appointments. But what we could ask everyone to do was to sign up for the marrow registry if they met the health requirements. Even though I was fortunate enough not to need their donations, we hoped they could be someone else's match and help other patients in the future.
Being an organ donor is not the same thing as being a bone marrow donor. Even if you have the organ donor box checked on your driver's license, you need to sign up separately through Be the Match, which is run by the National Marrow Donor Program.
You don't even have to have a blood test to join. When you let Be the Match know you want to become a possible donor, they mail you a cheek swab test to send back. They will call you if you may be a match for someone in need.
Needing a transplant is scary. But not knowing where your bone marrow donation will come from is worse.
Whenever someone asks me what they can do to help someone with cancer, I always tell them to join the registry. They may never be matched with someone in need, but wouldn't it be an amazing thing if they were?