How Giving Blood Helped Diagnose My Unseen Cancer

It can be easy to feel helpless during a pandemic, and donating is something we can do to help each other. Sometimes, as in my case, it can also give back to you in unexpected ways.

About four years ago, while my boss was heading out for her lunch break, she casually mentioned she was heading out to donate blood. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, the idea that you could do something like that over the span of a simple lunch break, and potentially help so many people. Wouldn’t anyone want blood available if the worst happened to someone they loved? I signed up for the next available appointment and started donating regularly, every three months.

I love giving blood. It makes me feel good to do something to help another person, and until the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way the Canadian Blood Services does things, the process was so easy; a questionnaire, a check-in, a quick chat with a nurse. Your iron gets checked through a prick of your finger and blood pressure measured to ensure you can donate. Once that’s done you move to the donation area where a nurse hooks you up while you sit back and relax. I’d give a brief amount of my time then enjoy many post-donation cookies, usually Oreos. In today’s world it can be easy to feel helpless; donating is something we can do to help each other. Sometimes, as in my case, it can also give back to you in unexpected ways.

The last time I donated blood was July of last year; I was expecting business as usual. As the nurse did her usual checks, she eyed my neck for a little longer than seemed normal. I started to feel self-conscious. Then she said: “Your thyroid looks big. You might want to get that checked. It’s probably nothing, but you never know.”

I had noticed that the lower half of my neck seemed larger than it used to lately, but I had no discernible bumps or lumps and I get a physical every year, so assumed it was just one of the many joys of aging. Still, I figured it was better to be safe than sorry and went to my doctor. An ultrasound revealed a tumor, and quite a large one at that.

I sat in my doctor’s office while in his calm and gentle way he explained it could be cancer, but it could also be nothing, and that the next stop would be an endocrinologist. I sat in my car feeling slightly panicked, cried, then drove home. I didn’t want my two young kids to worry. The next day I sent a thank you note to the Canadian Blood Services nurse: while everything suddenly felt in upheaval, at least the problem had been detected.

An endocrinologist appointment, surgeon referral and biopsy later, I anxiously waited for the results while on holiday with my family later that summer. The biopsy came back benign, and I was beyond relieved. But, due to the size of the tumor at least half my thyroid would have to be removed—which frankly, I was fine with. I was ready to get that thing out of me! I lucked out with a surgery date two weeks later. Instead of taking my daughter to the first day of first grade, my husband and I went to the hospital and I gowned up.

Afterwards, my surgeon was confident all was well. I was even able to go home that night and healed in the weeks that followed. I started taking medication that I will need for the rest of my life, but that seemed like a small inconvenience in the grand scheme of things. I was ready to put the whole experience behind me.

I went to my post-op appointment six weeks later feeling pretty good. I thought my surgeon would check my scar, chat about it, and that would be that. He explained that the surgery went well, but I stopped him as he went into further detail. Did he just say it was cancer after all? It turns out it was: the biopsy result had only been a small sample of what turned out to be a malignant tumor

So I had cancer at age 35. I don’t know how long it had been there, or how long it would have been there if the nurse had not suggested I get checked. I will always be grateful for that July appointment—and I will continue to give blood again, as soon as I’m able.

Because of my diagnosis, I won’t be able to donate for five years. But I check in every once in a while, as CBS’s policies change often. In fact, some insist that they need to: over the past few weeks advocates and lawmakers have again been pushing the federal government to update and remove the current restrictions on gay men and trans and non-binary people on donating blood.

I encourage friends and family to do it—and without prompting, my husband started donating because he knows how important it is to me. He’s even continued to donate throughout the pandemic. Did you know you can still donate right now?

It may seem scary to venture to a clinic when you don’t have to, but donating during this time is so important. CBS has changed a few things about the donation process to keep everyone involved safe and comfortable.

Face masks are currently mandatory, and are provided if you don’t have one. Snacks are not currently being offered before appointments to ensure masks stay on, but the post-donation snacks are still there. Everyone is screened upon arrival for COVID-19 symptoms, including a temperature check. You will be asked to sanitize your hands and maintain a two-metre distance from others.

Donating is the very least I can give. It costs nothing but a fraction of time to help others. So please, consider donating. You never know who you could be helping and whose life you could be changing—even your own.