The text from the transplant coordinator read ‘Congratulations, your brother is a match!’ Oddly, this puzzled me, which probably reflects the altered mental state a cancer diagnosis can put you in, and I ever so briefly entertained the thought that she might be joking. Then it dawned on me, this was real, and this was great news! Next I thought of how relieved my stressed-out wife would be and of how the coordinator must welcome sending a message like that.
My older brother was the first potential donor that we tested for my stem cell transplant. I felt lucky, the chances of curing my complex lymphomas just went up. Even though we are different in many ways, other than a twin, he was an excellent match.
Two weeks before the scheduled transplant he flew out to stay with us. The flight was another source of altered mental state concern. If he catches something from another passenger will the transplant be delayed? Should he wear a mask? Tell him to take hand sanitizer with him. What if the plane crashes? Should we drive him out? Which is safer, driving or flying? That close to a cure, stressing the little things became a hobby if not a necessity. However, upon his arrival I had a different plan of action, physical action.
I had just read some research finding that donors that exercised improved the stress resistance of their stem cells, and that increased the survival of the recipient by three fold. Even though the study was in mice, my brother was going to start exercising, I’d put him on a treadmill and feed him cheese if necessary.
Luckily for him I had a Garmin GPS watch with a heart rate monitor that he could wear. As if giving his stem cells wasn’t enough, each day he uploaded his ‘training’ into my Garmin online account, which I could access via my iPad from my hospital room on the transplant isolation ward where I was for eight days while they wiped out my bone marrow.
My altered mental state kicked into high gear a few days before transplant when my wife called saying that she was headed out to search for my brother. He had called asking her to come get him from his walk and he seemed disoriented. Oh no, had all the walking given him a heart attack? What was wrong? Was he ok? Was he going to make it? His stem cells, was the transplant in jeopardy? My marrow was already being wiped out, was there a contingency plan?
Fortunately, his disorientation was only geographically related and not a medical issue. He had started his walk late in the day and it had gotten dark which hid the landmarks that he’d recently become accustom to. Scare over but lesson learned. From the Garmin online data I saw that just strolling around our town’s neighborhoods for an hour a day was in his heart rate training zone. So I asked him to just keep his walks leisurely, to enjoy himself, and to walk in the mornings! He ended up walking 12 of the 14 days prior to donating his stem cells, more than 6 miles on one of those days.
For a brief time I’d thought that my zeal to improve the chances of a successful transplant may have killed my brother, but he was doing it all to save me.
Exercise and Hematopoietic Stem and Progenitor Cells: Protection, Quantity, and Function. Michael De Lisio and Gianni Parise. Exerc. Sport Sci. Rev., Vol. 41, No. 2, pp. 116-122, 2013. http://journals.lww.com/acsm-essr/Fulltext/2013/04000/Exercise_and_Hematopoietic_Stem_and_Progenitor.8.aspx
a unique record of my donor’s exercise prior to harvesting his stem cells http://workoutcancer.org/uploads/Donor.pdf