A mild touch of the cancer: In which David reaches the Boss Level

David getting harvested, with his full agreement.
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David getting harvested, with his full agreement.

OPINION: Author and comedian David Downs shares his experience with cancer in this series 'A mild touch of the cancer'.

As I write this, I am being 'harvested'. 

Sounds pretty sci-fi, and when I describe it, you may think it's part of an elaborate plot to steal my precious bodily fluids (channelling 'Dr Strangelove' there). However, being 'harvested' is an expected part of the stem cell transplant process – the procedure I am heading into next. 

It's even more sci-fi sounding when you consider it used to be called a "bone marrow transplant' – not the most pleasant of images, which is probably why cancer's PR agency insisted the procedure be renamed. They don't do much right, that PR agency, but they got this one nearly correct. (Being cancer's PR agent must be about the worst public relations job in the world – although I hear they are an ex-Whitehouse press secretary, so they probably saw it as trading up).

READ MORE: A mild touch of the cancer - all columns 

The best description of a stem cell transplant I've been told so far is that if chemotherapy was like trying to weed the garden by putting poison on it to kill the weeds, then a stem cell transplant is more like digging up the entire garden bed, and replacing all the soil. Scorched earth, a complete replacement.

This analogy is a much better one than the sci-fi one. Less 'AlphaVille' and more 'FarmVille': In the phone game FarmVille you can grow your own farm and compete to harvest vegetables to gain points and try to win the game – and that computer game similarity makes sense to me. Treatment for my cancer so far has been a succession of more difficult procedures, like levels in a video game. At each point I've had to try to withstand the chemo and battle the evil cancer cells – and now it appears I have reached the 'Boss Level'.

David reaches the Boss Level.
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David reaches the Boss Level.

For those over the age of 40, the "Boss Level" in a game is typically the last level in a long sequence, where the hero needs to fight the biggest and baddest character of them all to win the overall game. They are usually five times as big, with ten times as much ammo as the other minor baddy characters.

This stem cell transplant could easily be renamed "Cancer's Boss Level" (come on cancer's PR agent, do I have to do your job for you?).

In a stem cell transplant there are multiple steps. Step 1, the one I am going through today, is when my stem cells are harvested. What that involves is me injecting myself with two needles a day for the past 10 days, to stimulate my stem cells to leave the relative safety and comfort of my bone marrow, where they normally live, and get into my bloodstream.

Injecting twice a day for nearly two weeks has left my midriff looking like a dartboard, full of tiny holes. The stuff I've been injecting is called G-CSF or 'Granulocyte – Colony Stimulating Factor' – another sci-fi sounding name. I bet you wish you could similarly stimulate your colonies, which you are welcome to do in the privacy of your own home.

All this stabbing myself in the puku has meant quite a bit of fatigue and very achy bones (I feel like a grandad… but where am I going to get one at this time of day? Ah classic; good to know my dad jokes aren't affected by this harvesting).

Then I had to have a series of blood tests to check suitability for harvest – on the first day my blood test showed I was level 3, which wasn't enough, so I had to come home again. Then the second day I was an 8 out of 10, so again, didn't make the grade. Then yesterday I again disappointed with a 12. My mate Dave asked what the units were, inches? I somehow doubt it but I will take the implied compliment.

Today I was the appropriate level so it's finally into the special blood place to get the harvesting done. A bit apprehensive, I imagined the room filled with green light and dropping in alien mucous, but disappointingly it was just a standard looking hospital room. Very little mucous apart from the stuff I brought myself. The harvesting procedure really just involved getting two intra-venous lines put into my arms; one to draw blood out and the other to put it back in again, over hours, perhaps days. 

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The two lines run my blood through a device that looks like a washing machine – a reasonable description, given it spins the blood around in a rapid cycle and separates out the stem cells from the rest of the blood. A bit like skimming the cream off the top of the milk – which for those under the age of 40 is what we used to do when the milk was delivered in bottles when we were kids. Yes. bottles. Yes, delivered. It was a whole different world back then. To make it more understandable for you modern folk, think of it as the Uber of Udders.

The process of harvesting today will take 4 to 5 hours, during which time they will gather about 200mls worth of stem cells. Once they are all gathered, these will be tested and then frozen for a few weeks, ready for me to re-use them later.

But before we go any further, I should probably explain what 'stem cells' are. I have a few of them apparently. You've got them, too, and they are pretty important. Basically, what we were taught at school is that around and around in our bloodstream we circulate a couple of different cells – the famous 'red' blood cells, which circulate oxygen around our bodies; and the equally important 'white' blood cells which fight infection. 

However, the more complex story is there are loads of different types of blood cells – some generated from others – resulting in a wide array of different important cell types for our bodies. When you see the full chart it reminds me of Pokemon – gotta have them all!

The full set of blood cells you can collect at all participating retailers. Photo: Supplied

Actually, looking at the handy chart the blood clinic gave me, I think it would make a great collectables series for a petrol station. (Better than the disappointing range of Smurfs one of them recently ran - when I was a kid the Smurfs were life-sized, and had legs! Now they seem to just give out 'Naff Smurf' and 'S...house Smurf'. Collect the set and get a free sense of self-loathing.)

If they went with my new idea, they could have a little foil bag with a plastic model of a blood cell type each time you spend more than $50 in petrol. 

"Yay, I got a B-Lymphoblast!"

"Stink, a Promomocyte, I've already got 3. Swap you for a Macrophage."

If you're going to disappoint kids, at least educate them in the process.

So anyway, the stem cells are the 'mother of all cells', in that they have the ability to generate all the other cell types. Go the Pluripotent stem cells. They're like the Boss Level of blood types.

So – now I have a bag full of these cell chameleons, approximately 2 million per kilo of body weight, apparently, so around 200 million of the suckers (give or take – I haven't counted them personally). They are ready to go into storage at 70 degrees below zero for when I need them next – which will be in just a few weeks. 

Now that I have them on ice, it's like having an insurance policy for what's planned to happen next in my treatment. Where the Boss gets angry.

But that is a few weeks away – so I'll explain more about the stem cell transplant then. In the meantime, the doctor has worryingly told me to get a bit fitter, and try to put on some weight. It's like he is fattening up with turkey for Christmas, and we all know what happens to that. I also have to get my heart looked at, my teeth checked, and ensure I have no fungus on me. Weird. I am not in the habit of growing truffles in my armpits, but I had better check.

It seems this Boss Level is going to be serious.

 - Stuff

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