Five is usually the magic number for marking an effective bone marrow registry drive, said Danielle Craig, lead organizer for Tuesday’s Be The Match drive.
By the end of a four-hour event held in the lobby of the Mail Tribune, however, the nonprofit’s donor registry had increased by 18 — almost four times that benchmark.
“What does this say about our community?” Craig asked, smiling. Her shirt in big gold letters read, “Because kids can’t fight cancer alone.”
Bone and blood cancers, the focus diseases of Be The Match, are unique in a few ways. Perhaps the most significant is that they are not only treatable, but often curable.
That’s just one of many aspects of the disease and donations that people often misunderstand, said Joe Wilson, regional community engagement representative for the internationally recognized nonprofit.
Bone marrow donations still conjure up images of large needles and long, painful recoveries, Wilson said, neither of which are accurate in modern times.
Two methods exist for donating bone marrow or stem cells to fight off cancer in a patient’s body.
Marrow donation does involve general anesthesia, but Wilson said that’s because the needle used to collect marrow from the back of the donor’s pelvic bone is small enough that any movement could break it. The size of the needle allows it to pass through the bone’s porous surface and so doesn’t require drilling. Donors are typically fully recovered within two to seven days, according to Be The Match.
The second donation method involves peripheral blood stem cells and is a nonsurgical outpatient process. The donor takes a drug for five days that increases the number of stem cells in the bloodstream. Those cells are collected in a blood donation-style process, the worst side effects of which are usually brief head or muscle aches.
“We can literally take an engine from one person and put it into a sick person, and they could be like they never had the illness ever in their life,” Wilson said. “Something that kills so many people a year ... we know we can prevent this by having donors available and ready to go to save people’s lives.”
Signing up for the registry, which involves a quick cheek swab and a three-page form, doesn’t mean that you will necessarily be called to donate: the matching process between donor and patient hangs on 10 genetic markers called human leukocyte antigens. Only if a patient and donor match at least eight of the markers (10 is preferred) will the donor be asked to fully commit to the process.
Racial and ethnic background play important roles in finding matches, which has corresponded to inequity in how many blood and bone cancer patients of color are able to find matches compared to their white counterparts, Wilson said.
While white North American patients have about an 80 percent chance of matching 10 out of 10 with someone from the donor registry, Wilson said, among black and Hispanic people, that number goes down by half: around a 40 percent chance of finding an equivalent match.
With the exception of sickle-cell anemia, the diseases Be The Match targets are “color-blind,” Wilson said, meaning members of different racial groups face the same likelihood of getting them. Their survival rates, however, may be impacted by the availability of donors who share their ethnic backgrounds.
“Equity is at the forefront of our mission,” Wilson said about the nonprofit’s efforts to increase and diversify the registry.
For Craig, this week’s donor registry event was the culmination of a years-long desire to boost survival rates among blood and bone disease patients. She witnessed her own cousin die from leukemia over a decade earlier, and after reporting the story of another family affected by blood cancer as a journalist, teamed up to host the event at the Mail Tribune.
The turnout, she said, “surpassed any expectations I could have had.”
Those who came by to sign up also had their stories that brought them there. Frances Hunsaker lost her mother when she was 14 to liver and colon cancer, she said.
“If I can help someone else,” she said, “why not?”
Those who are interested in signing up for the registry can find information on how to do so at join.bethematch.org/ourfight.