Wednesday, February 20, 2013


I think that cancer patients are kind of like pregnant women, and guys in the weightlifting section of the gym -- we try to be subtle about checking each other out, but we check each other out nonetheless. At first, when I found myself doing it, I thought I was the only one. I'd be in the elevator or in a waiting area at Dana-Farber and I'd find myself trying to see which person in a dually-hair-covered couple was wearing the patient bracelet or the little yellow clip-on device that tracks the patient's location in the building. Is he the one with cancer or is she? Boy, she looks great if she's the sick one! Other times, I'd find myself peeking over at someone trying to decide if her hair was coming in or going out, and if she was a breast cancer patient like me. Of course my curiosity was pointless and probably immature, but I was OK with that.

The funny thing is that other people can't help it, either. In fact, judging by the looks I get when I'm at Dana-Farber (and even more so, when I'm not there), I think I throw people off a bit. My build is still somewhat athletic (if my stomach is covered up -- which of course it always is) and I don't think most people are used to seeing someone that looks healthy also look like they have cancer. But I don't mind the stares, because I'm busy giving my own right back.

When I spoke with Dr. Bunnell's office this morning to schedule my labs, I chose the last appointment they had so that I could get as much work done in my office as possible. My Mom picked me up at 4:15 and we were at my 4:40 appointment right on time. When we walked into the waiting area of the lab, we were shocked that it was completely empty. There was literally not another patient in sight despite that dozens of people usually pack that room. What, did they find a cure to cancer or something? I wondered. Unfortunately, they hadn't. 

It took no more than five minutes for the nurse to draw my labs and I was done. They would call me in 30 minutes to tell me the results. We headed down to "P1" to turn in the valet ticket that we had only just received. We set a personal record for the speediest medical appointment yet -- proven by the fact that the cost of the parking was $0. 

As we waited for the valet people to retrieve our car, I noticed a fellow patient in the waiting area. I did my subtle staring-like glances while pretending that I was busy thinking of something else. The first thing I noticed was that this man was thin. Really thin. He had a thick head of straight hair, mostly brown, with some streaks of white. I couldn't tell how old he was, mostly because I couldn't decide if it was age or sickness that had worn out his face. If I had to guess, though, I'd peg him at around 45. Forty-five, but thanks to cancer, looking more like 60. I never caught this man's name, but I'll call him Frank because he looked like a Frank to me. He never got mine either, and I wonder what name he'd call me if he had to choose one. Sarah? Yeah, maybe I look like a Sarah. 

Anyways, the valet guys were clearly having trouble finding or retrieving our car so we continued to wait. I could feel Frank looking at me but I figured he was just checking out my cancer situation, like I was checking out his. When Frank spoke to me, I was surprised because I wasn't used to moving beyond awkward stares. 

When Frank spoke, I noticed that his teeth were a bit rotted. Maybe 50, then, I decided. Frank excused himself, then asked me if I shaved my head before my hair fell out or if I let it fall out on its own. He explained that he is undergoing a bone marrow transplant on March 8th and that he will get heavy doses of chemotherapy as part of his treatment. He was trying to decide what to do about his hair. 

I told Frank that I had shaved mine and that it worked well for me; that I would have found it really hard to see my hair fall out in big clumps. Frank listened closely to my answers, but there were definitely two layers of our conversation. The first layer was the one on the surface -- the words we were saying to one another. But it was the second layer of the conversation, the invisible one, that meant even more. 

My Mom felt that second layer too and we talked about it when we got in the car. We both noticed that more than anything, Frank wanted someone to talk to. He had come to Dana-Farber alone, but I don't think that he wanted to be that way. That made me sad, as it always has. 

At the same time, I was totally amazed by Frank. After he mentioned that he would be getting a bone marrow transplant, I congratulated him on having found a match. What great news, I remarked, and Frank agreed. I asked him if the match was a relative. No, it's a stranger, he explained. In fact, Frank's brother was only a 4/6 match while this perfect stranger was a 6/6. Frank described seeing the chart comparing him with his donor match and he said they were identical. Un-freaking-believable. We talked about how amazing it is that a perfect stranger will give his or her bone marrow to Frank in just a few weeks. Frank explained that he would "be in a pine box without it." I love boxes, but I really hate thinking about ones made of pine. 

Our car arrived just after Frank's did. He and I shook hands and wished each other the best. I'll be thinking of Frank on March 8th. 

On the ride home, Danielle called to tell me that my platelets looked fine. I was enormously relieved. If I needed platelets now, I figured it could be a problem that would linger until my Herceptin is done in October. But after speaking with Frank, I wasn't going to complain because even platelet transfusions through October seemed simple compared to a bone marrow transplant. 

I'm certain that I'll never see Frank again and he'll never read this blog. But those five minutes my Mom and I had with him will stay with me forever. Frank's tangible appreciation for a stranger's bone marrow will stay with me forever. 

At first, I thought that I should excuse myself from donor registries, not so much because I'd been through enough, but because I figured that I probably didn't have anything that other people would want. That's silly, though, because it's only me playing doctor again. For all I know, my bone marrow is just fine and could save someone one day. So tomorrow, I'll call Sean at Dana-Farber and see if my bone marrow would make the cut. I know that my boobs are as fake as they come, but maybe -- hopefully -- everything else is still good for the taking. 


  1. I googled "bone marrow donation" after reading this. There is a National Marrow Donor Program, and people can learn more about it at If you choose to join the registy, you are sent a kit that you use to send in a tissue sample (through a quick cheek swab). If a doctor finds you are a match for a patient, you are called and can then donate your bone marrow. Its a lot to consider, but certainly worth considering if it save lives. I will definitely be giving it some thought. Thanks as always T for opening our eyes to how we can help.

  2. Interesting timing as I got this email from "Be the Match Marrow Registry" today:

    In our ongoing registry analysis, we’ve learned that because of your human leukocyte antigen (HLA) type, you’re among a small group of registry members that can make a big difference.

    Your HLA type, determined from the cheek swab or blood sample you provided when you joined the registry, is considered uncommon—yet extremely valuable. Having an uncommon HLA type means fewer patients will potentially match you, but when they do, they need you even more. You may be the only one on the registry who can save their life. Read FAQs about uncommon HLA types.

    Are you committed? Let us know.
    Knowing that you’re still a committed registry member will help us work with doctors searching for a match for a patient. Please review your life-saving pledge to learn what it means to be a committed registry member. When you click the orange button below you’re telling us you stand ready to donate if called as a match.*

  3. Thank you both so much! I just left a message at the National Marrow Donor Program office at Dana-Farber. Their number is 866-875-3324 for anyone who is interested in learning more.

  4. Hi Tara, glad to here your counts are normal! Thanks for mentioning the bone marrow registry. It is frightening for those facing bone marrow failure. Their life depends on the kindness of others. It is out of their control. Family members & strangers have to first be tested, hopefully be a match & most importantly, agree to donate. Siblings have a 50% chance of being a perfect (HLA) match. My 15 yr. old son, Matty will be in bone marrow failure soon. Luckily, both his siblings agreed to be tested. My 18 yr. old son, JC (on Brian's hockey team) is a perfect match. When the time comes, he will go to the OR to have his bone marrow harvested and Matty will receive it soon after. Some people can donate stem cells, depending on the illness. If an 18 yr. old can do this- no questions asked, hopefully others will consider it. It is truly life saving. Thanks again!

  5. Hi Tara:
    I check people out all the time at Dana Farber -- and always feel odd glances too, particularly when I go there by myself which I do occasionally. Maybe we've seen each other in the elevators.
    Interesting note about the donor list... I used to give platelets regularly but stopped because one of the questions they ask is whether you've had cancer. So, I'm thinking they don't want my platelets but you've got me thinking that I should check it out. I'm hoping to be off treatment for a LONG time so maybe I can return to donating. For anyone interested, the link for donating is:
    and the link for bone marrow/stem cell donation is;