Staff Sgt. Mark Jenkins is a supply noncommissioned officer in the Colorado Army National Guard. This is his story, in his words.
In 2007 I met the girl of my dreams, hoped of building a family, and retiring from the Army. In 2008, a routine physical changed my life.
I remember the phone call like it was yesterday. My family practice doctor called me and told me that my physical was fine except for an elevated platelet count. He informed me that he wanted me to see a specialist to determine the cause. I thought nothing of it. I thought nothing of the referral that sent me to the Rocky Mountain Cancer Center, either. I just filled out all the paperwork, went in for an exam and had more blood drawn. I knew nothing about what a CBC (complete blood count) consisted of, I knew nothing about bone marrow biopsies. However, I did everything my doctors told me to do. What came out of a series of appointments was a diagnosis of essential thrombocytosis, a rare, chronic blood disorder characterized by the overproduction of platelets in the bone marrow.
What did this mean? My bone marrow production was haywire, which meant a high risk of stroke and heart attack – a diagnosis that meant constant monitoring of my blood counts. Every two weeks meant a trip to Rocky Mountain Cancer Center, a CBC and a bunch of questions. That was easy enough to handle, I thought.
After about a year, though, things changed dramatically. I was picking my daughter up from school and as I sat in the car waiting for her to arrive, I lost sight in my left eye, the most tremendous headache came upon me and my tongue and left side of my face went numb. After scooping up my kid, I drove myself to the emergency room, only to be told six hours later that I had a transient ischemic attack – or what is often referred to as a mini stroke.
What did this mean? It meant that my disease was progressing and now I needed oral chemotherapy to regulate the production of my platelets. At one point I was taking a total of eight pills a day of two different medications. Due to the toxicity of one medication, it was suggested that another bone marrow biopsy be completed. When the results came back, it was the biggest punch in the stomach I ever felt.
My oncologist started the conversation with, “The results are not good.” My blood disorder evolved into myelofibrosis, a chronic leukemia that ultimately replaces the bone marrow with collagenous connective tissue fibers. The disease has a prognosis of five to 10 years.
While trying to control the symptoms of my disease, my oncologist had informed me that the only cure for this is to receive a bone marrow or stem cell transplant. He told me that he would only suggest this procedure if I absolutely needed it because it could kill me. Over time, my CBCs have gotten worse, and I received an email telling me that it was time I got evaluated for a bone marrow transplant.
In September 2011 I took a trip to Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Huston, Texas, to be evaluated for a transplant. Two weeks and 12 appointments later, I was told that I qualified for a transplant. My wife and I came home to Denver, discussed a plan of action, and decided we’d go forward with a treatment that would kill my immune system and replace my bone marrow with a donor’s. The procedure and follow up appointments would take a total of six months.
Because I have no full siblings, the search for a donor began through the National Bone Marrow Registry. After a search of the registry, we were told in January 2012 that there’s not a match for me – yet. Our efforts to find a cure are delayed as we wait for new members to join the registry and possibly a match.
This disease has turned my family, career, and aspirations upside down.
Having a blood cancer has now changed my family’s entire outlook. I now pray that I can see my daughter graduate from high school. My goals have gotten smaller, and my health has gotten worse. My career will come to an end sooner than I anticipated, and my wife has assumed the roll of caretaker.
I’ve often wondered why we’ve been dealt this hand, and what my purpose in life is. Myelofibrosis is a potentially life-threatening blood cancer with limited treatment options. Currently, the only hope I have for a cure is a transplant.
Quite possibly it could be that I have this disease in order to become a messenger about the illness, and about the lifesaving options available to treat people just like me. A donor might not be in my immediate future however we can help many others who are walking down this difficult path – and possibly bring relief to someone.
The C.W. Bill Young Department of Defense Marrow Donor Program is specifically designed for military members who want to be bone marrow donors and feeds directly into the National Bone Marrow Registry. If you’re a match for a patient in need, DOD program counselors will work with you and your chain of command to ensure you get the support necessary to help save someone’s life.
To that end, on Saturday, March 31, from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., members of the National Guard Association of Colorado and Bonfils Blood Center will be on hand at the Westin Westminster Hotel at 10600 Westminster Boulevard, Westminster, Colo., 80020 to help you – whether military or civilian – register to be a bone marrow donor.
Registering to become a marrow donor is easy; simply getting your cheek swabbed will put you on the path to save a life.