Perhaps one of the great joys of my job as a physician is hearing a patient has found their perfect match. Not something you expect to hear from a physician? Let me explain. Patients with blood-related cancers often rely on blood and marrow donors to aid in treatments. This involves a bit of genetic matchmaking, among many other factors, between the patient and marrow donors. When a match is made, it gives patients a powerful way to fight their cancer. The challenge is that many Americans have no idea they may hold the key to saving a life.
Blood disorders and cancers aren’t talked about as often as other types of cancers, such as breast and colon cancers. Leukemia, lymphoma, and multiple myeloma are all blood related cancers that can either originate in or directly impact the bone marrow. Once thought incurable, cancers and disorders related to the blood are now often treated through a blood or bone marrow stem cell transplant, or BMT. This specialized treatment requires thorough evaluation and may not be right for all patients. When a physician identifies an opportunity for a patient to undergo a BMT, many factors in addition to finding a genetic match determine whether the treatment is best for that patient.
Think of a BMT as a resetting of the immune system with brand new cells. The specific type of transplant depends on a patient’s diagnosis and condition, but most transplants work similarly in that blood-forming cells (or stem cells) are infused into a patient’s body to help it build healthy new cells that will multiply in the body to create healthy, non-diseased cells. Stem cells can re-build white or red blood cells as well as platelets in the bone marrow and blood stream.
Where do those healthy, blood-forming cells come from? People like you, of course. Blood and marrow donations make transplants possible, but common misconceptions tend to deter people from donating. Here are some things to consider before opting out of registering to be a donor.
- Donating isn’t as scary as you may think. If you donate blood you can donate marrow or cells that help with the rebuilding of a patient’s immune system. For example, one method on donation involves a machine that draws your blood, takes the cells it needs and puts the blood back into your body by way of the opposite arm.
- Most Donors report minimal side effects. Though there’s a bit more to it than, say, dropping by a local blood drive, donors generally report minimal side effects. Headaches, fatigue, and general discomfort in the days following the donation have been reported, but this is normal and varies by person.
- It’s easy to register as a donor. The National Marrow Donor Program matches donors with potential transplant patients. The Be the Match program, a database of donors, helps healthcare providers find life-saving bone marrow donors. You can easily register today by visiting the website at www.BeTheMatch.org and giving a cheek swab. A diverse range of donors are needed, particularly for minority registrants.
Across Texas Oncology’s expansive network of more than 420 physicians, we’re focused on oncology and blood disorders in both children and adults. I have witnessed the incredible gift donors provide to our patients. I encourage everyone to sign up to be a donor. It can be life-saving.
Benjamin West, M.D., Texas Oncology is a radiation oncologist at Texas Oncology McAllen, 1901 South 2nd Street in McAllen, Texas.
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