My New Life as a Chimera

Living with two sets of DNA. /

The day I received my cancer diagnosis was harrowing. But what followed—learning that the only possible remedy was a risky bone marrow transplant—was even more distressing.

Months after the transplant was completed, I learned from a medical blog that I had become a chimera. Totally unfamiliar with the term, I soon discovered that its first usage, in Homer’s Iliad, described a hybrid monster with a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a serpent’s tail.

Over time, the definition softened (thankfully) to include mermaids, centaurs and other beings with incongruent parts. Today, the word is used in two primary ways, both benign.

First, it describes animals that possess two sets of DNA—their own and that of their non-identical twin.

Second, scientists employ the concept to describe bone marrow transplant patients who have received life-saving cells from another person. That’s me. Like chimeric cats, we each possess two distinct sets of DNA.

My cancer is relatively rare. Sometime last year, my bones began to produce an increasing number of mutant white cells. If untreated, it would gradually shut my immune system down, much like AIDS does. I would then die, not of the cancer itself, but of a simple common cold.

But then a medical miracle occurred. My brother, Grant, was identified as an identical genetic match. His bone marrow was transfused and my life was spared.

Months afterward, I asked my doctor about my new chimeric identity. With Grant’s DNA now in place, would I suddenly begin to imitate his love of dancing (I’m a horrible dancer)? Would I share his disdain for chocolate (perish the thought)? Would my sense of humor deviate to match his (I won’t comment on who is funnier)? ...

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Also in this Issue

Issue 43 / March 3, 2016
  1. Editor’s Note

    Issue 43: Perfect pitch, big-wave surfing, and double DNA. /

  2. The Messy Secrets of Perfect Pitch

    Inside the science of a skill revered in much of the music world. /

  3. Moving Mountains

    Searching for beauty beyond the bigness of the wave. /

  4. To a Robin in Lent

    “You were the first one back” /

  5. Wonder on the Web

    Issue 43: Links to amazing stuff.

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