The Blood Bank of Alaska-Kenai Peninsula Center will offer area residents two different ways to save a life Tuesday during a drive at Christ Lutheran Church in Soldotna.
During the drive, the blood bank will accept blood donations as usual. It also will allow donors to have their blood stem cells tested and entered in the National Marrow Donor Registry, making them potential stem cell donors for cancer patients.
The procedure is surprisingly simple, according to Sue Stein, who helped organize the drive.
And she should know.
The 45-year-old Soldotna woman suffers from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and will leave Monday for Phoenix, where she will begin the process to undergo a stem cell transplant herself.
Stein was first diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's in May 1999, after noticing a swelling in her abdomen.
At first, the cancer couldn't be treated, because it was in a slow-growing state and would not respond to chemotherapy.
In the summer of 2000, however, the cancer became aggressive, she recalled. She went through an eight-month round of chemotherapy, which sent the disease into remission.
The remission lasted about two years.
Then, this May, the cancer returned.
"It's funny," Stein said. "The first time they diagnosed it, I just knew everything would be fine. I just knew.
"This time, it was really scary. When you're told it's back after only two years I'm scared. For the first time, I realized this could kill me."
Doctors tell Stein a blood stem cell transplant is her only option.
"They didn't give us a plan B," she said.
Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma is a type of cancer that begins in the lymphatic system, which is part of the body's immune system. The lymphatic system begins producing abnormal cells, and those cells grow out of control.
A stem cell transplant often is the best option for people with lymphomas, especially recurring ones.
There are two different types of transplants available, Stein ex-plained.
In an autologous transplant, doctors take stem cells young cells that grow into different types of cells from the patient, treat them to destroy the cancer cells, then replace them with the hope that they will begin to grow normally.
In an allogeneic transplant, doctors take the same type of cells from a donor and put them in the patient's body.
Stein already has undergone two rounds of chemotherapy this go-round to prepare for a transplant, and when she goes to the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix this week, doctors will begin a series of tests and procedures to determine which type of transplant is best for her.
"I'll have re-evaluating tests," she said. "They'll determine what these two rounds of chemo have done: Have they cleaned up (my cells) enough to use my own or will we go to a donor?"
The transplant is scheduled for September. A few weeks later, Stein should be able to return to the Kenai Peninsula. But even then, it will be several months before she knows if the transplant worked.
"I know it's a long road, and I'm just praying I have the strength to do it," she said. "Every time I go through chemo, it's hard on my body. Every time, I wonder how many more times I can do this. My family says we're not even going to go there. But I know it's a reality. At some point, my body may just say 'no more.'
"I just didn't expect to go through this so soon. Two years is not nearly long enough."
As hard as the situation is, though, Stein knows she is lucky.
Stem cell transplants require donors and patients to have matching cells. Siblings often are the best chance for such matches, and even then, there's only a one in four chance of a match.
Stein's sister turns out to be a perfect match, meaning she already has a donor lined up.
Stein's friend, Tommy Ellison, who grew up in the Sterling-Soldotna area and now works in Prudhoe Bay, hasn't been so fortunate.
Ellison also was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in May of 1999. He underwent an autologous transplant, but six months later, a cancerous lymph node was found.
"They didn't get it all out or not enough of it," he said.
Now he needs a transplant from a donor, but his siblings don't match. And after nearly three months of searching, the national registry has yet to come up with a matching donor.
"It's tougher than you'd think to find a donor," he said. "A lot of people have joined the registry, but a lot of people don't even know about it."
Ellison is part of the reason Stein and the blood bank have decided to offer stem cell testing on the peninsula.
The testing is quite simple.
"Stem cell and bone marrow transplants are basically the same thing, but it used to be all you heard about was bone marrow," Stein said.
In the past, she explained, doctors would have to insert a needle into a donor's hip bone to draw out bone marrow.
"It's painful, I've had to have it done," Stein said, grimacing.
"They now know they can retrieve (stem cells) through peripheral blood: a blood draw."
Linda Galloway, a medical technologist and donor services technician with the local blood bank, explained that stem cell testing requires only a single vial of blood be drawn from a potential donor.
"If you're donating blood, we already draw extra vials anyway to be tested for AIDS and hepatitis," she said. "This is just one more. That's all that's done at this time."
The vial of blood is tested for stem cell type, and the information is logged in the national registry, she said.
If it matches someone who is in need of a transplant, the donor will be called to see if they are willing to participate in additional tests.
If a transplant does take place, Stein explained, the donor is flown to the transplant site at the patient's expense, has some tests done, is given cell-stimulating injections to promote stem cell growth, then spends a couple hours a day hooked up to a machine that draws blood.
The blood is filtered through another machine that pulls out the stem cells, and the blood is returned to the donor. The stem cells then are given to the cancer patient in hopes of curing their disease.
"It's not a huge deal," Stein said. "You're an outpatient in the hospital for a couple days, but you also save somebody's life."
The drive will run from 2 to 6 p.m. Tuesday at Christ Lutheran Church at the "Y" in Soldotna. People who make appointments will be expedited through the donation process, Galloway said, but walk-ins also are welcome. Blood donation, with the necessary form completion and screening questions, generally takes about 30 minutes to an hour.
Anyone who recently has given blood and is not eligible to donate again still may do the stem cell testing, Galloway added. And, she said, the blood bank will offer free stem cell testing throughout the month of August.
"The testing is expensive," she said, explaining it costs $60 to $70 per donor to test stem cells. However, BP Exploration has underwritten the cost of the drive and of testing for one month.
For more information on the drive or for an appointment, call 260-5672.
"It's free, it doesn't hurt to get on (the list), so do it," Ellison said.
"A lot of people don't quite understand, they don't realize the need for donors. They don't think about it until they meet somebody who's looking. I know I never did. I'd just ask people to sign up, not just for my sake, but for anybody's sake. There are a lot of people out there who need the help."
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