Saturday, April 23, 2011

I Am Iron Man

Over eight years ago I visited Johns Hopkins Hospital, where I was told I had a second cancer and would require a bone marrow transplant in order to live past 22 years old. I considered getting treated there, before deciding on the University of Minnesota instead.

This past Wednesday, I returned to Hopkins. I drove by the same decrepit neighborhoods and apartment complex my parents would have rented from, had I chosen to be treated there. I walked down the same halls of the gorgeous Weinberg building, up the same escalators, and past the same flower shop.

But this time was different. I am healthy, strong, and cancer-free. I have graduated from the University of Virginia, held a consulting position for two years, published a book, and have an eight-year-old immune system that may be better than my original.

Some others would hate returning to Hopkins after what I had been through eight years ago. The sights and smells were the same, and reminded me of a time when my bone marrow was dying rapidly in front of my eyes.

But actually I found it invigorating. I felt like a crisp, pressed Brooks Brother shirt in a pile of used towels from Super 8. My biceps bulged larger, my immune system circulated my vessels faster, and my limp abruptly turned into a strut. My unethical perspective that I detail in my book has persevered. I do not think I am better than anyone else, or that others are weak because they succumbed to cancer while I survived twice. But I need to feel this way. I thrived on it when I had cancer, as I thrived on it three days ago.

My body has excessive ferritin from all the blood transfusions I’ve received, and Hopkins is the closest facility with the specialized MRI machine able to detect the iron accumulation in my liver. The MRI performed last year showed five times the upper limit of normal. I’ve been getting bled out every three weeks for the past eighteen months, so hopefully the one I had done at Hopkins three days ago shows improvement. Whether it does or doesn’t, my vampire therapy may be coming to an end. If the MRI shows no improvement, then not much can be done to rid my body of iron. Robert Downey, Jr. may have met his match.

Whatever the result, it’s not worth my concern for the time being. If you aren’t aware, I received an umbilical cord stem cell transplant, where the cells were frozen for years before being thawed for my transplant on April 24, 2003. For the first several years after the transplant, I caught colds all the time—I was an adult with a baby immune system. Now, I rarely get sick, and have even eased up on my germophobia. I trust my immune system to protect me, and want to expose it to more germs to test it, to strengthen it.

My donor—the stem cells from an umbilical cord—was a female, so my blood has two of the same sex chromosome, XX, instead of XY. Transgender jokes (…not that there’s anything wrong with that) are fair game this time of year. As are jokes about my spoiled little bratty girl (aka my immune system), who will become interested in boys soon which may complicate things a tad. For her birthday tomorrow she wants one of those Abercrombie & Fitch push-up bras designed for children. My little pumpkin usually gets what she wants, but an eight-year-old bone marrow in a bra is beyond creepy.

I had thought my donor would forever remain anonymous, but my friend, Prizefighter, informed me that, with proper consent, I can communicate openly with her family. I think they’d want to know that their decision to donate the baby’s umbilical cord saved my life. It’s simple and free for the mother. I only wish more mothers were aware of the process and donated the umbilical cord to save others.

As I do every year, I ask that you wish my young bone marrow a happy birthday. She really likes the attention. Just don’t expect a thank-you card, partly because she’s lazy but mostly because I’m too cheap to pay for postage.

Next up is my ten-year cancer-free anniversary from my first cancer. The celebration will occur in San Diego from September 15-18, 2011. My great friend, T2theZ, is joining me in celebration, as he always does. I’m hoping to finagle free San Diego Padres tickets. Hey I’m cheap, remember? Those jokes are fair game, too.