In the summer of 2018, Memorial Sloan Kettering project manager Christina Muggeo received an unexpected phone call: She was a possible match for a cancer patient who needed a stem cell transplant.
In an allogeneic transplant procedure, blood stem cells from a donor are added into the bloodstream of someone with cancer, to replace the defective cells that have been knocked out with chemotherapy. Here, Ms. Muggeo describes her experiences as a stem cell donor and why she felt compelled to help a man she had never met.
I registered to be a blood stem cell donor when I was still in college, before I worked at MSK. They were having a drive on campus. I wasn’t sure exactly what it entailed, but the volunteers explained that I could be a potential match for a cancer patient. All they needed was a cheek swab.
When I found out years later that my cells were a match for someone with cancer, I immediately knew that I wanted to help. Through my work at MSK, as well as friends and family members, I’ve known many people with cancer. I know what they go through, and I had no hesitation about donating.
Seven Months before the Donation: A Waiting Game
It can take a few weeks to several months between getting the initial call and completing the donation procedure. I had some blood tests to confirm I was a match. I didn’t tell my family and friends right away because I wanted to be absolutely sure it was official.
When the match was confirmed, one of the first people I talked to was Marcel van den Brink [head of MSK’s Division of Hematologic Malignancies, who is an expert in bone marrow transplants]. I had worked in his office prior to my current role at MSK. I reached out to ask him what I should expect, both from the injections and from the procedure, and how I could alleviate any side effects. I also wanted to learn more about my match’s rare type of cancer.
While I was working with him, I helped organize fundraisers for DKMS, the nonprofit organization that had contacted me about my match. I was familiar with the work they do because Dr. van den Brink is on their medical board. He was very surprised that I’d been contacted about being a donor, because the odds of being matched to someone who is unrelated are quite low. It was an amazing coincidence, especially because the match was based on the sample that I’d given them back in college.Back to top
Two Months before the Donation: Learning about the Process
When I first got the call that I was a match, I was a little nervous. My friends and family were anxious as well. But it turned out that I was able to donate using a procedure called a peripheral blood stem cell donation.
This type of donation doesn’t require surgery. Instead, the stem cells are removed from the blood with a process called apheresis. Before the donation, you need to take a drug called filgrastim (Neupogen®) that boosts your body’s natural production of blood stem cells. The blood is taken out through a needle in your arm, the stem cells are removed from your blood, and the rest of the blood is put back through your other arm. This is similar to the process for donating platelets.
[Editor’s note: Thanks to drugs like filgrastim, about 80% of stem cell donations are now done using apheresis. The other 20% use the older method that most people think of when they hear “bone marrow transplant.” This is a minor surgical procedure in which bone marrow is removed from the pelvis or other large bones. The decision about which donation procedure to use is based on the cancer patient — their type of disease and how many cells they need.]Back to top
Five Days before the Donation: Flu-Like Symptoms
When the process began, I received injections of filgrastim for five days leading up to the donation. I was told I was likely to experience flu-like symptoms from the drug, but the side effects for me were very minor. The side effects I did experience were easily lessened with rest and relaxation at home.Back to top
The Day of the Donation
On the morning of the procedure, I ate a large breakfast to prepare for the day. I then headed to the New York Blood Center filled with excitement and a few nerves. I was there for several hours while they filtered the stem cells from my blood. I was truly surprised about how easy and nearly painless the process was. Within 24 hours, I felt completely back to my normal self.
Why I Decided to Donate
While I don’t know much about the patient who received my stem cells, I’ve imagined everything he must be going through. He’s a total stranger, but I know the toll cancer can take on someone and wanted to help immediately. When I learned more about my match, I immediately thought of my father, because they’re around the same age. This quickly put things into perspective and calmed my fears. I hope that eventually I will get to meet him. In the meantime, DKMS has arranged for us to write letters to each other anonymously.
If I could talk to my match now, I would send him all my best wishes, ask him to stay strong, and let him know that he’s in my thoughts. I really hope that the transplant is successful and gives him another chance at life, because he still has so many years yet to experience.
Our mission at MSK is to treat and care for our cancer patients while finding a cure, so that’s exactly why I decided to donate. Cancer is a devastating disease and the impact that donors have should not be minimized. MSK employees are incredibly dedicated to our patients, so this opportunity was a unique way for me to give back.
For those who are unsure about registering to be a donor, I want you to know how easy it is to swab your cheek and send in the sample. It could be weeks or years before you get the call, or you may never be called. But just the possibility of being able to give someone with cancer hope is incredibly fulfilling. Wouldn’t you want to give someone who needs a transplant the chance to find a match?Back to top