Like, me, you probably learned about the human circulatory system at some point in school. But unless you’re a biologist or work in some type of medical field, you probably don’t think much about it in the course of your daily life.
But when something goes wrong, you learn more than you ever wanted to know. That is the case for people with blood cancers — such the multiple myeloma that veteran newsman Tom Brokaw is now being treated for, and the leukemia that I had.
Blood has four main components: plasma, red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. There are three types of blood cancer — myeloma, leukemia, and lymphoma — each affecting a different part of the blood. Myeloma is formed by malignant plasma cells, leukemia is most often a cancer of white blood cells, and lymphoma attacks the lymphatic system, which helps rid the body of toxins, waste, and other unwanted substances.
These cancers start in bone marrow, where blood is produced. In most blood cancers, the normal cell development process is interrupted by uncontrolled growth of an abnormal type of blood cell. These cancerous cells prevent blood from performing many of its functions, such as fighting off infections, clotting to prevent hemorrhage, and transporting oxygen and nutrients to the lungs.
If a blood test shows the presence of abnormal cells, a bone marrow biopsy can definitively confirm a cancer diagnosis, as well as providing more specific information about the malignancy.
I will never forget my first test 10 years ago. My local doctor suspected leukemia after I had complained of feeling unusually fatigued during a 10-kilomter road race. He sent me to a hematologist who rushed me through the test without giving me anything to calm my nerves. (Subsequent doctors had me pre-medicate for such tests with Ativan or even morphine.)
This is how The American Cancer Society (ACS) describes the test:
“The back of the pelvic bone is numbed with local anesthetic. Then, to do the bone marrow aspiration, a needle is inserted into the bone, and a syringe is used to remove a small amount of liquid bone marrow. This causes a brief sharp pain. Then for the biopsy, a needle is used to remove a tiny sliver of bone and marrow, about 1/16-inch across and 1-inch long.”
The ACS may call it a “brief sharp pain,” but I’ll tell you: When they do the “pull” to remove liquid marrow, it feels like your insides are being sucked out. And for the removal of the bone, you can feel the pressure of the doctor digging in. Though not exactly painful, it is a strange and extremely unpleasant sensation.
It seems odd to say this, but in a way I was lucky in the type of blood cancer I got. My doctor told me 10 years ago that leukemia is curable, and those words buoyed me through the hardest of times.
Multiple myeloma is incurable, though researchers have made great strides in treating it and prolonging life seven to 10 years, or even longer, after a diagnosis.
Brokaw, 74, the former NBC news anchor who joined the network in 1966, was diagnosed in August at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. His doctors are optimistic about the outcome of the treatment he is receiving.
For his part, Brokaw said he remains “the luckiest guy I know.”
Like everyone else who has welcomed Tom Brokaw into their homes, I wish him well.
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