You’ve already heard about my relapse story. The main course of treatment suggested for my situation was an autologous bone marrow transplant. If that failed, they would proceed with an allogenic transplant.
Allogenic– you get someone else’s bone marrow, typically a sibling or close relative to have as close a match as possible. Sometimes you will get outside donors as well.
Autologous– you get your own marrow back. To be further explained in this.
If you have absolutely no idea what I just said, don’t’ worry. Neither did I at the time.
I distinctly remember driving to the hospital with my dad for an appointment. We had left the house, and he asked me if I wanted to proceed with the transplant. The doctors had told us there was a 50% chance it would work. He reiterated that, but also said there is a probability of being in a car accident, so it was hard to just look at those odds. I remember the full 360 degrees we drove as we got on the exit ramp.
My dad’s a fast driver, and while he knows what he’s doing, it can be a bit tense at times in the car. But I was filled with peace and calm that this was the way to go forward, regardless of which 50% sector I ended up in.
January (2012) and February were filled with an intense chemotherapy. If I thought my first cancer was bad, I had no idea how hard it was the second go around. But I made it through.
Then came the cell harvesting time. Basically they give you medication that makes your bone marrow overstimulate and create tons and tons of stem cells, that they can then harvest. The shots of medication were insanely painful, and almost daily. The dear nurses had worked out that instead of multiple shots in a row, they would bring in multiple nurses to do it all at once. Basically just ten excruciatingly painful seconds all over your body, instead of a few minutes in one place.
The shots went in my muscles, which is way more painful than vaccines you get normally. Because your bones are overstimulated, the ache. It’s a pain like no other one I’ve ever experienced before. The general unwritten rule is to take some everyday Claritin, but of course talk to your doctor first.
After a week or so of this torture, my levels came up to just high enough to harvest. It’s actually really interesting.
This is a super basic summary of it, but they hooked up my tri-fusion catheter to a centrifuge machine. It’s about the size of a small laundry machine, and is wheeled into my room. It takes my blood out, spins it around super-fast so all the extra stem cells rise to the top and are collected into a little plastic bag, and it returns the blood to me. It takes about 4 hours. After that, the bag of cells is radiated to be cleaned of cancer and frozen to be ready for transplant. The week before transplant, I’m hit with an extremely hard chemo, and my body wiped clean of white blood cells.
Jen recalls: Today, April 18th, 2012, I celebrated what will hopefully be my last birthday- a second chance at life- my bone marrow transplant birthday. This morning, around 11a.m., I received my own stem cells, that had been harvested about two weeks ago. Surrounded by my family, nurses, physician’s assistant and five syringes of stem cells, more than half a dozen pukes, Morphine, Ativan, and Tylenol and Benadryl later, I’m doing OK! The whole experience was VERY unique. The cells are frozen in something that smells like creamed corn (or some say garlic). However, even the tasty smells of summer couldn’t settle my stomach. As the kids got kinda antsy, Angela took them for a walk, to let them burn of a little energy. However, Rachel stuck it out, and got the whole thing on video,! Now we’re expecting my blood counts to completely bottom out within the next few days, before they engraft themselves back into my bone marrow.
The actual transplant is as simple as a syringe of cells being pushed through my mediport. March 18th marks six years since I’ve had my transplant. I remember feeling very nauseous, hopeful, anxious and so many other emotions that day.
Today, as I write this I’ve come a long way. I graduated college. I have a house. I have a job. I’ve reached many milestones I didn’t know if I would live long enough to see. But I wonder how my life would be different if I hadn’t had that cancer. I probably would have a different job, as my college career would have been very different. I probably wouldn’t have all the side effects I do now. I wouldn’t know my amazing transplant team. I wouldn’t have been able to talk to others who were facing transplant.
The life I have now is a hard one. It’s a struggle on a daily basis. I wonder how my life would be better without this second cancer.
One of my favorite quotes is from Randy Pausch, as he gave his famous last lecture as he was dying of pancreatic cancer- “We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.”.
I’ve had regrets over these last six years. But honestly, I think I’ve had less regrets over these last six, than I did over the six before that. And that’s what counts. That I’m playing my cards the best I can. That I learn from my regrets, and mistakes, and I don’t squander this new chance of life.