To your left is a picture of a white blood cell. You have about a zillion of these in your body: T-cells, B-cells, granulocytes, monocytes, macrophages, helper cells, dendritic cells, neurophils, basophils. I could go on. They are all part of our body's complicated, well-organized immune system.
These cells blast around in your body like police on their beats identifying and neutralizing antigens, that is, bacteria and toxins and other microscopic things that don't belong. They do this all the time, 24/7. But this is about dendritic cells.
THE BODY'S BORDER GUARDS
I was first introduced to dendritic cells by Dr. Richard Edelson, then head of the cancer department at Yale/New Haven hospital. I was writing an article about him for a regional publication and he is too modest to say that he was much more than instrumental in identifying an actual cure for cutaneous T-cell lymphoma. (Don't ask. It is a cancer that has to do with the skin and it's real bad. You don't want to have it.) Dr. Edelson exhibits the same thrill showing you gross before-and-after pictures of this cancer that a new father does presenting photos of his newborn.
But back to the dendritic cells: they are more like PacMan than policemen because they more than neutralize antigens: they eat them. They pay close attention to the body's vulnerable entrances and exits, like the skin or the lungs. But eliminating all the toxins they can eat is not enough; the dendritic cells then have to enlist other cells in the body to help eradicate any bad guys that got away. They have to go to your lymph nodes where your T-cells hang out and tell them and the B-cells what happened, but the dendritic cells can't talk (I mean, really. Can PacMan talk?) so they have to show the other cells what they just ate.
THESE ARE CALLED ANTIGEN-PRESENTING CELLS
Tell me you didn't play LOOK with your younger sibling. You know, when you're eating lunch and mother looks away and you say to your sister, "Look!" and she looks and you open your mouth real wide and stick out your tongue with disgusting-looking chewed-up hot dogs and gaggy, mushed-up bun and ketchup on it for her to look at. Eww.
Basically, that's how the dendritic cell tells the other cells what's out there waiting to pounce and make the body sick. The cell "presents" the toxins (Look!) to the other cells – eww – and all the other cells go look for more of the stuff and eradicate it! Even some of the monocyte cells which are usually just hanging around watching blood coagulate or something.
So all of us, and especially cancer patients, really need our dendritic cells. I am sure that mine were really trying to help, but bless their hearts, they couldn't get enough of a team together to prevent my breast cancer.
HERE'S THE JEWELRY PART
I really want them to be vigilant now – and that is why Dr. Edelson's wife Ruth gave me a necklace: a beautiful silver dendritic cell on a chain.
Although dendritic cells come in more complicated shapes, the most common is a sloppy star. Kind of like Dali's melting clocks. If they were stars.
What made Ruth's gift to me incredibly personal and powerful (I cried) was that she designed it – originally for her husband as cufflinks and tuxedo studs for a big anniversary – and then as necklaces for her dearest friends who had been diagnosed with some form of cancer … and me.
It appears to be unrecognizable as anything but jewelry, but Ruth says that every now and again someone who is wearing her necklace calls and tells her that someone at the opera or in a line at a grocery store, someone who knows, recognizes the shape and has the temerity to ask. "Is that a dendritic cell?" And there is a bond between two people who know their bodies are vulnerable and they are grateful for this invisible secret agent who is working around the clock to fend off evil.
Next up CHAPTER 13: It's Contagious
JUST JOINING SHERRI'S STORY? CATCH UP ON WHAT YOU'VE MISSED HERE: