Guest blog by Omar Siddiqi, MD
I am not a stranger to illness. During my medical training, I met many patients on the worst day of their lives. Like a maître d’ at some bizarre restaurant, I ushered them to their beds, discussed the menu of meds that I could offer them and held discussions about diagnosis and prognosis. I sat with families during family meetings that were often tearful and always difficult. Much like a maître d’, I watched patients and their families without ever participating in the actual experience. And then one day all this changed. The annoying gum bleeding that I had been having for a week was not some pesky virus like I had assumed. It was, instead, acute myelogenous leukemia (AML).
Suddenly, I became the patient. April 26, 2013 became the worst day of my life. The next fifteen months saw me poked and prodded with needles and catheters and given medicines that made me violently ill. I underwent a stem cell transplant from my brother, who donated his bone marrow stem cells.
But this post is not about how terrible cancer is, although that is indeed true. Instead, I want to talk about the inherent goodness that I found in people who surrounded me during this ordeal. Besides prayer and a lot of Jolly Ranchers, it was the people, family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers who carried me on their shoulders as I battled, in equal measure, cancer and its treatment. People traveled from far off places to sit by my bedside in the sterile, dimly lit room of the cancer wing. People baked cookies and lemon squares, held me, prayed with me, laughed and cried with me. Their love, much like the blood, platelets, and stem cells that I received, underscores a shared humanity that energized my fight and continues to spur me on.
This bond is especially powerful when healthy volunteers donate bone marrow stem cells to save the lives of patients with blood cancers and certain other diseases. Stem cell transplants from caring donors have the power to allow patients to regenerate their own damaged bone marrow while providing them with a healthy immune system to fight disease. Volunteers, who match patients, can donate stem cells by one of two methods. The vast majority (about 95%) of all stem cell harvests are done through an IV in the arm after a medicine is given to mobilize stem cells. A small minority (about 5%) of all harvests are performed directly from the hip bone with the donor under general anesthesia as part of a minor, outpatient surgical procedure.
While the risk to the healthy volunteer donor is exceedingly small, this process remains marred by fears and misinformation. My illness has allowed me to speak to many people about stem cell donations. While most people are eager to help save a life, many are scared away by the donation process. These fears are especially prevalent in ethnic minority communities. As a result patients from these communities have a much harder time finding stem cell donors and many will die while awaiting transplant. Given the urgent need for stem cell donors, I want to harness the power of the LIVESTRONG community to urge people from all communities to register to donate bone marrow stem cells. In doing this, you have the direct ability to save a life.
Unfortunately, this earnest plea to get people to sign up for the stem cell registry has an ulterior motive. After 15 months in remission, I learned recently that my leukemia is back. I may need another transplant, this time from an unrelated donor. Like most South Asians, I have no donor options in the registry. Like thousands of other patients awaiting transplants and their families, my family and I are trying not to let hopelessness dictate our lives as we take things one day at a time, hoping fervently for more volunteers to register to donate stem cells.
Cancer overwhelms us while interrupting and threatening our lives and our families. And yet our common humanity is stronger and binds us together, perhaps never as meaningfully as when we come together to save lives. To learn about donating stem cells and to sign up, click: www.BeTheMatch.org