My sophomore year of high school, I thoroughly enjoyed taking Biology – largely because my friends in that class (namely Abby Benson & Jesse Wooten) were awesome, and Mr. Stuckey, my teacher, was hilarious. A small part of me found the subject matter fascinating as well, but in all honesty…science has never been my thing. There was one particular project in Biology class that year that sparked my interest. Abby and I paired up to do some research on stem cells. I don’t remember much about what we learned – like I said…science isn’t really my thing – but I do remember an urgency that we felt about our project because stem cell research (especially in 2001) was a highly controversial matter. According to what Abby and I found, it seemed like stem cells had great potential to help a lot of people! When we presented this to our classmates, we felt like we were on the verge of something new…like our findings might change the world!
I could not have possibly imagined at the age of 14 that stem cell research would, in fact, change my world… but it has. A month ago today, my dad received a stem cell transplant to treat his multiple myeloma (a type of blood cancer). Today, he’s home in North Carolina recovering and spending time with family. I’ve had a lot of people ask me how all this works scientifically, so I thought I’d do my best to explain. Keep in mind that there’s a good chance some of what I say will be inaccurate.
Dad has Multiple Myeloma. This form of cancer has been explained to us in this way: everyone has an “on-off switch” that creates platelets in the body. Dad’s “switch” is essentially stuck on. The excess of platelets really don’t know what else to do, so they are attacking his bones (couldn’t they be playing with each other or something?…that’s really all they could think of to do??). Chemotherapy is one way to treat this cancer, although Multiple Myeloma is a type of chronic disease…it is incurable. Chemotherapy is a simple, painless process with complex, painful side effects that follow. Dad underwent a few chemo treatments soon after his diagnosis in March. The goal of these treatments was to kill off as many cancerous cells as possible. Unfortunately, the chemo can’t exactly distinguish between what is bad and what is good, so it kills it all. After the chemo treatments, dad received several shots of Neupogen to help stimulate stem cell growth. When he was ready in July, the doctors collected 8 million of his baby stem cells over the course of an hour. How are you sure the stem cells aren’t cancerous? many people have asked me. Well, I suppose we’re not sure. But hopefully the chemo treatments beforehand put us in a safe enough place to take the new stem cells.
Here’s where it starts to get even more incredible. In July, the docs froze dad’s 8 million stem cells in liquid nitrogen. Then, on August 16 – “day negative one” – they gave dad a 10 minute injection of super strong chemo. Over the next 24 hours, the chemo wrecked everything in his body (side effects to come later…) in order to have one last go at destroying the cancer before giving dad’s stem cells back. The next day, August 17, was not only known as “day zero,” but also dad’s new birthday. In about 15 minutes, 3 nurses gave dad his 8 million stem cells back. This was no surgery. In fact, the main doctors weren’t even present! It was a no-big-deal procedure, timed perfectly between three nurses: one who thawed dad’s frozen stem cells and put them into syringes to be administered, one who injected the stem cells, and the other… well…I don’t even think the other one did anything. In any case, 15 minutes later, dad officially received an entirely new immune system.
Here’s where my belief in science falls short, and my belief in something greater (God?) takes over. How the heck do those 8 million stem cells know where to go in his body and what to do? How can they just wake up from being in frozen hibernation for a month and then jump into action? At a certain point, it’s no longer scientific to me, and instead, it’s simply a miracle. The fact that some people survive this cancer for more than a decade and others don’t seems to me to be more in God’s hands than my Biology textbook.
So, that’s where we are for the next several months, well…forever, I suppose. In God’s hands. Dad’s in good shape and will have tests run just before Thanksgiving to see if the cancer is still hanging out or if we beat it down for now. It’s been a whirlwind of events, as you all know… and I can’t not write about it because there’s just so much to learn from it all. Perhaps the most shocking thing I’ve learned is that something from 10th grade Biology actually stuck with me… !