Putting The ‘Coffin On Cancer’ By Getting Stem Cells From His Identical Twin Brother

Family |

Laying in his hospital bed, Bruce Johanson FaceTimed his twin brother, showing him the tubes delivering the donated stem cells from him, going into his body. After months of chemo, Bruce’s bald head makes him look so much different than his brother, Blair. But before Bruce’s diagnosis of Mantle Cell Lymphoma, this past May, the 2 twin 60 year old brothers looked so much alike. Even their wives would have a hard time telling them apart at times. The joksters that they are too, they always tricked their wives.

“We have a special connection,” Blair told Bruce on the FaceTime call. “Even more so now,” Bruce said, looking down at the tubes from his brothers stem cells. Bruce had initially came to the Nebraska Medical Center from where he lived in Fayetteville, just for a consultation. Him and his wife, Debbie, met with Dr. Julie Vost, the oncologist and hematologist at the hospital. She told them the treatment plan, Bruce’s own blood-forming stem cells would be collected, he would have to do very high doses of chemo and then his stem cells would be returned into his body to try to help replenish them since chemo would kill them all off.

Then, later that day when speaking with his case manage, Stacy Rooker, he had mentioned how him and his identical twin brother share a consulting business. “Identical twin?” She asked. Bruce shook his head, yes. “I think the plan of action for you just got changed,” Stacy said to Bruce. Identical twins share the same DNA, Blair’s stem cells would work for Bruce. “It would be like getting his own stem cells with no risk of circulating the cancer cells back into his body,” she said.

But, there was something that could come up in the way, Bruce and Blair weren’t 100% certain that they were identical, but for 6 decades, their mother swore by it. Their mother said they were born just four minutes apart, delivered in 2 amniotic sacs and back in 1956 that meant they couldn’t be identical. “We are pretty sure she was wrong. We always felt we were identical, you just know when you have that special bond,” Bruce told her. 

No one could ever tell them apart, in the hospital or as adults. As they grew older, they just got used to the fact that people couldn’t tell them apart. They always wore similar style clothes, glasses, they even ended up purchasing cars that were similar, not knowing and living in 2 different states. Their mother still said they couldn’t be identical, that all of those things were just coincidences.

So before Blair could donate stem cells, the matter had to be settled with a DNA test. They waited 60 years and they are just finding out if your mother was incorrect, for all of those years. Not only could they not wait for the stem cell results, but also the DNA test alone. They actually were so excited; they held a reveal party in their mom’s apartment. Under the frosting of 2 different cupcakes, she discovered 2 blue jellybeans, her sons were in fact, identical!!

“It was the least shocking reveal of all time,” said Matt Johanson, 29, the younger of Bruce’s two sons. After he found out he was a match, Blair made the trip, sat in a chair, got hooked up to a machine and donated three small bags of blood-forming stem cells for his identical twin brother. Those bags came to Bruce in a cooler of liquid nitrogen ready to be pumped into his body.

As Bruce’s whole family sat at watched those stem cells empty into his arms, they all held hands while making jokes, lightening up the mood and trying not to make it so emotional for Bruce. Over the past several months, the family has worked to stay optimistic. There have been quite a few good surprises with everything that’s happened, Bruce said, but he has found ease in realizing what he’s known all along: His twin brother would do anything for him.

“We’ve always been so close to one another, but this means a lot, he is helping save my life,” Bruce said. Then the sudden smile, the grin he and his brother share. “He’s helping me put the coffin on cancer.”

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Autumn Mcleod

Senior Writer

Autumn came to us really wanting to break away from the politics that came with working for major news sites. She leads our positive story writers in creating the best, engaging stories out there. She is an enthusiast of all things from the roaring twenties.