Yesterday was my zero. To be excited and terrified in equal measure is an unusual conflict of emotions but that’s how I felt when a little bag of stem cells was infused into my bloodstream. As a process it’s a huge anti-climax because nothing visible actually happens but it’s the gravity of the moment which makes you stop and think.
Over the last few days the medical team have treated me with a combination of chemotherapy, immunosuppressants and radiotherapy to prepare me for the cells. My own immune system has been battered into submission and space has been made in my bones for new marrow to grow so at the moment I’m vulnerable to infection but less likely to experience a rejection of the foreign cells.
On Wednesday night I underwent the radiotherapy element of what is called the priming process. A few weeks ago I went to the radiotherapy unit for a test dose of the treatment that is used to test how high to turn the switch for my full dose. It’s a very precise operation where radiotherapists aim a beam of radioactive energy at specific parts of the body – the chest, pelvis and thighs where most of the marrow is housed – with the intention of destroying the body’s immune cells within.
First they make a body mould to hold you in place and enable them to replicate the exact same position for the actual treatment. Lying on a giant beanbag mattress, they use a vacuum to suck the air out of the bag and the remaining polystyrene balls form an imprint which holds you still (you can see me in the mould in the picture to the right; the screen acts like a lens to focus the beam). Then, in the style of Doctor Evil, they use laser beams to establish the correct alignment in front of the radiotherapy machine.
For the treatment on Wednesday I was exposed to 6 lots of radioactive energy, 3 on the front and 3 on the back, for about a minute each time. X-Radiation exposure is measured in Grays. I had 2.68Gy which really isn’t much compared to someone who has a full course of treatment but it is quite intense. I felt grotty – a bit toxic – afterwards but nothing dramatic.
Yesterday I got the new cells – again there’s a picture of the moment – and that was the first step in creating Me V2.0. Understandably there is strict confidentiality in place for the donor but I do know he’s a 30 year old British man who has chosen to do a great thing.
First the cells arrived in what looks like a Dalek because they have been frozen. Most donor cells are given fresh but because of the delays I had with infection they were preserved. They come in small bags – 4 in my case – and are placed in a warm water bath to defrost. After that they’re infused like any other blood product. It really is as simple as that. The whole process took about an hour.
As you can probably tell, I’m totally exhausted and not really finding writing this very easy but I wanted to explain how things happen. I’ll be back on form in a couple of days to explain how the cells begin to develop into a new immune system for me.
To leave you with an idea of how big the changes in my body will be, when the new cells have totally taken over I will adopt the donor’s blood type meaning I’ll change from O to A. That blew my mind!
Thanks to everyone for the messages of support - it means a lot.
For more information on stem cell transplants go to the Allinex website http://www.allinex.org/
If you've recently been diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma and have yet to receive treatment you could be eligible to take part in a new clincial trial. Read more here.