Photo by Alain M. Polynice
Photo by Alain M. Polynice

Officer learns of cancer after blood donation visit

by Alain M. Polynice
Regional Health Command Europe

HOHENFELS, Germany – What began as a simple act – donating blood to help save lives of other military service members and their families – ended up saving the life of a U.S. Army Medical Department Activity Bavaria commissioned officer.

Earlier this year, then 1st Lt. Eric S. Anderson Sr., executive officer for the U.S. Army Health Clinic Hohenfels, attended a blood drive, run by the Armed Services Blood Program – Europe. Anderson was there to donate blood, something he had done several times in the past. It was at this blood drive Anderson’s life would forever change.

To meet the basic requirements for donating blood, ASBP requires that an individual be in good health. The individual’s pulse, blood pressure and temperature are checked to ensure they are within normal limits.

In addition to being free of infections that could be transmitted through a blood transfusion, the individual’s blood sample is drawn using the finger prick – prick to the fingertip – to ensure the individual has a normal blood hemoglobin level, a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout the body.

“I went to donate blood,” explained Anderson. “And when you go there, they prick you to check your hemoglobin and to make sure you can donate.”

His hemoglobin level was anything but normal that day. Anderson’s hemoglobin level was well below the normal range.

“When they did [the finger prick], it was extremely low,” he said. “So they did it twice and when they did it again, it was a lower reading.”

Anderson left the blood drive and went back to the clinic and had his hemoglobin level checked at the clinic. When the clinic also confirmed his hemoglobin level was extremely low, he went to the emergency room that same day. Anderson ended up receiving a blood transfusion.

The following day, he underwent a bone biopsy. The biopsy confirmed the reason for the low hemoglobin level.

Anderson was diagnosed with having chronic lymphocytic leukemia, or CLL, a type of cancer in which the bone marrow makes too many lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell. CLL is one of the most common types of leukemia in adults. It rarely occurs in children.

According to the National Cancer Institute at the National Institute of Heath, in CLL, too many blood stem cells become abnormal lymphocytes and do not become healthy white blood cells. The abnormal lymphocytes may also be called leukemia cells. The lymphocytes are not able to fight infection very well. As the number of lymphocytes increases in the blood and bone marrow, there is less room for healthy white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. This may cause infection, anemia, and easy bleeding.

In CLL, the leukemia cells often build up slowly. Many people don't have any symptoms for at least a few years. But over time, the cells grow and spread to other parts of the body, including the lymph nodes, liver, and spleen.

“I had a tumor in my spleen and that’s where the white blood cell were populating,” Anderson explained. “They were not dying. They were not producing as they should.”

Usually CLL does not cause any signs or symptoms and is found during a routine blood test.

“So I found out [about my condition] because I went to give blood,” said Anderson.

Treatments for patients with CLL include radiation therapy, chemotherapy, surgery to remove the spleen, and targeted therapy. Targeted therapy uses substances that attack cancer cells or block the growth and spread of cancer cells.

“I’m taking chemotherapy which is helping out tremendously,” Anderson claims. “My blood work is going back to normal.”

The current survival rate for patients with CLL is 83 percent, meaning 83 out of every 100 people with CLL will be alive five years after diagnosis, according to the National Cancer Institute at the National Institute of Heath.

With the help of his chain of command, Anderson applied for and was granted a compassionate reassignment: a change of duty assignment to another installation, in a different geographical area, that is better equipped to deal with an individual’s medical needs, whether it is the service member or a family member.

Anderson, a native of Fort Worth, Texas, will be assigned as a patient at Brooke Army Medical Center Warrior Transition Battalion at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Texas. His family will accompany him to Texas.

Besides having his wife and five children by his side, Anderson will also have the support of his family who still lives in Fort Worth, which is less than five hours north of San Antonio. Anderson will also be able to see his eldest daughter who currently lives in Fort Worth.

Just before heading off to Texas, Anderson, who had been selected for promotion, was promoted to captain by his clinic commander, Lt. Col. Sam Preston. Anderson’s promotion ceremony took place at the clinic’s helipad with family, friends, clinic staff and senior leadership from both Regional Health Command – Europe and MEDDAC Bavaria in attendance to wish him and his family well.

Blood donation is one of the most significant contribution that a military service member can make to another service member. Blood donation saves lives. To find out if you are eligible to donate, go to www.militaryblood.dod.mil/

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