When I was 13 years old, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer.
You never want to hear those words. You don't even know how to react to them. But my mom is strong and she's doing just fine today. She has been clear for 10 years now, which is crazy to think about.
I tell you that story because I want you to know that just like nearly everyone else, my family has been impacted by cancer. Years later, when I was a student at the University of Minnesota, I remember seeing a booth set up on campus to encourage people to join the bone marrow registry. Why not? I swabbed my cheek, shared my contact information and went on with my day.
Of course, blood cancers and breast cancer are totally different things, but I have no doubt I joined that bone marrow registry because of the impact cancer had on my own family, and if I could help someone else's mom or brother or friend or family member in their fight, I wanted to do it.
That was seven years ago, and a lot can happen in seven years.
I graduated college. I moved to Toronto, got married, changed my last name and now I live in St. Louis. I got a new phone number and a few new e-mail addresses, too.
Despite all that, in October, I got an e-mail saying I was a match for a guy who had cancer and needed a bone marrow transplant. They found me using one of my old e-mail addresses, and my first thought was…
My husband is a professional hockey player and I stay at home and keep everything running when he's gone. We have two kids - Kanon, who is three, and Blake, who was just three months old at the time - and I didn't know what kind of commitment would be needed to make a bone marrow donation. Calling them back was a very surreal, nerve-wrecking experience.
When they discover that you're a match for someone, they ask you to give a blood sample to verify that you are, in fact, the best match. I did that, and that test came back positive that I was his front-runner. I learned there are two methods to donate bone marrow: one would be a peripheral blood stem cell donation where you're hooked up to an IV and your blood is taken and spun through a machine that separates and collects stem cells. The second option is a more invasive bone marrow extraction through the pelvic bone. These days, 75 percent of the time, they're asking you to do the stem blood method, although if you're donating to children, it's usually the extraction.
While there was no doubt I wanted to help this man, there were some things I needed to sort out with Tyler. The organization told me that before I could donate, I would have to receive several days of injections to prepare my body for the procedure, basically to force my bone marrow to make new white blood cells leading up to the collection. The problem was, I had a three-month old who wasn't yet ready to take a bottle, and those injections meant I couldn't breastfeed. And because St. Louis doesn't have a location that partners with the organization I was working with, I had to fly to Minnesota for the actual procedure.
I think Tyler was a little nervous right off the bat with it in the middle of the hockey season and everything. If you know anything about hockey wives, we run the ship at home. I'm with the kids when he's playing, so I think he was nervous in that sense. It's not that he didn't want me to donate, but he was very adamant that we knew all the risks. As long as I would be OK and was safe doing it, he was all for it. He thought it was really cool that I matched somebody and was able to do that. But I think from the get-go, he was pretty worried about me.
After the initial blood test in October, I didn't hear back from anyone until December while my patient's doctors decided the best course of action, which was a blessing because by then, our daughter was now taking a bottle. That part of my initial worry for donating was gone.
We decided to move forward, and whatever method was the best for treating his cancer, I decided I would be willing to do it.
They chose the blood stem cell option.
In early January, I began taking the injections to prepare my body to donate. Then, while Tyler boarded a flight to Philadelphia for a game, I was on a plane bound for Minnesota - the birthplace of the National Marrow Donor Program. Tyler's parents came to town for the holidays, so we were really lucky they were able to stay with the kids while I was gone.
They hooked me up to the IV and to the machine that filtered through my blood, and I was told it would take between four to eight hours to complete the process. I ended up needing the full eight. I had my mom with me for support, and I know she is so proud of me in helping another life. I was even able to fly home that same night and woke up with the kids at 7 a.m. the next day. Tyler had played a hockey game the night before, after all. I think donating stem cells might be easier on the body than an NHL game.
I think a lot about the man I am helping, although I still don't know much about him. All they tell you about your match is gender, age and type of cancer. But I wonder - does he have a family? Does he have kids? Was he out there worrying whether or not I would follow through?
I won't know for awhile whether my donation worked. They told me they might request that I donate again for him in the future, and that if they need it, they would reach out to me. If they don't, I'll take that as a good sign.
In a year, if all goes well, we'll have the opportunity to contact one another, and I already can't wait for that moment.
I wrote this because the whole experience just felt like such an honor to me. I thought about my mom and all the people I know impacted by cancer. I thought about 'what if it was one of my babies, or Tyler, who needed help?' I'd hope that there was a stranger out there somewhere that was willing to help them, so I needed to help, too.
It's so rare to match somebody, and it was a humbling, emotional experience to do it.
There's a little boy back home in Saskatchewan that Tyler knows. His name is Vonn, and he's been looking for a donor for several years and he still hasn't found a match. If you're reading this, I want you to know there are a lot of people like Vonn who don't have a match. Perhaps there's someone out there waiting that you can save.
Please visit bethematch.org to learn how to join the registry.
I'm so glad I did.