Bone marrow or stem cell transplants are brutal. First the patient gets chemo (with nasty side effects) to induce a remission (which would bounce back into disease without further treatment). Then, when they are in remission, they get drugs (with side effects) to make their bodies produce stem cells. Then, their stem cells are harvested via a gigantic IV needle and a complicated machine over many hours. Then, they get more chemo, twice a day, to completely destroy any bone marrow they have left, and I think maybe radiation, too. Then they get their stem cells put back in and they wait and hope. They need to be on an isolation ward for weeks until their bodies have some immunity back. When they are discharged, they need to stay within a certain (close) proximity to the hospital for 100 days, in case a fever or something develops, because any little sniffle is literally life-threatening. Often, all this doesn’t work. Sometimes there are complications which cause pain, or recurrence. Lots of times there is infection. Some don’t make it out of hospital. Sometimes we wonder why people allow themselves to be put through it all.
Last fall when I worked in chemo treatment we had this patient to whom I often administered chemo. He was about 21 and had something (I forget exactly what) that earned him a stem cell transplant. When I saw him, he was about three months out from his transplant, and battling complications left and right. He came in twice a day for IV antibiotics and painkillers. He was bald, and he was sick. He was always smiling, though, and we had good conversations about the books he was reading while he waited for his endless treatments to finish. By the end, he could practically hook himself up, he’d been though it so many times.
I thought about him a couple of weeks ago. I wondered how he was doing. I almost looked him up on the computer, but for confidentiality reasons, we really aren’t supposed to unless we have some specific care-related reason to. I asked a few people about him, and someone said they though he hadn’t made it.
I saw him today. I had to do a double take, I almost didn’t recognize him. He had hair. He was upright, not hunched and pale with pain. He wasn’t even wearing a hat. He had a little meat on his bones. He looked fantastic. He looked cured. He said he was doing really well. He was still smiling.
I didn’t have time, so I didn’t get much detail, but seeing him doing so well really made my day. I felt better all afternoon to know that he made it. I might be buoyed by the success stories all the more because my heart breaks for the patients who don’t make it. I guess that’s why they allow themselves to be put through it: this patient has a chance for a real life, changed by cancer, but richer for it.