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Mail Tribune says: Swab your cheek, save a life

Danielle Craig said she doesn’t have enough fingers or hands to count the number of heartbreaking stories about children and adults fighting cancer she’s heard as a journalist.

More than a decade ago, the most heartbreaking battle of all was one she witnessed firsthand as her 15-year-old cousin fought and lost her struggle with a rare form of leukemia.

“It was a grueling couple of years,” recalled Craig. “It was difficult to watch.”

For patients diagnosed with leukemia, lymphoma and various blood cancers, a bone marrow transplant may be their best or only hope for a cure. Yet 70 percent of people who need a transplant do not have a perfect match within their family.

Craig’s cousin did have a perfect match in her brother, but after a brief remission, she was diagnosed with another form of leukemia and died.

Craig is now passionate about childhood and blood cancer awareness. She also is an advocate of the National Marrow Donor Program.

The former KDRV-Channel 12 reporter and anchor and now host of “The Happiness in Progress” podcast has teamed up with the Mail Tribune to recruit potential marrow and stem cell donors.

The “Be the Match” registry drive will be from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 18, at the Mail Tribune offices, 111 N. Fir St.

“I have wanted to do a registry for many, many years,” said Craig. “When I approached the Mail Tribune, they ran with the idea. I am grateful for the support.”

Every three minutes someone is diagnosed with a blood cancer or disorder.

Each hour, six people die from a blood cancer.

“Five minutes of paperwork could be the difference” in someone’s life, said Craig.

DNA samples are collected with a quick swab of cheek cells.

“It’s very, very easy,” she said.

The target age group is 18 to 44 years old. Research indicates that cells from younger donors lead to more successful transplants.

Joining Craig at the registry event will be Mona Pinon, a fellow advocate who held a similar event in Grants Pass several years ago in search of a perfect match for two little boys with whom her family had become acquainted.

The Pinons’ story is one Craig covered years ago as a reporter.

Pinon’s 11-year-old son Isaac was diagnosed with stage 4 neuroblastoma at age 3-1/2 months.

Neuroblastoma is a type of cancer that forms in nerve tissue, and in Isaac’s case had spread into his bone marrow, kidneys, liver and elsewhere in his body. He also had a mass located between his lungs and spinal cord. As the tumor grew and swelled, Isaac became paralyzed.

Isaac also suffered other complications, endured 10 rounds of chemotherapy and more than eight surgeries.

During a “Make-A-Wish” trip for Isaac, the Pinons met a family from Iowa whose son had leukemia. She later learned the boy needed a bone marrow transplant, but wondered what she could do across the country in Oregon for him or any child in similar circumstances.

That’s when she learned of the “Be the Match” program and the national registry.

She was able to recruit volunteers to commit to being marrow donors.

Through the donor registry, a perfect match was found for the Iowa boy. His life was spared through a successful bone marrow transplant, but sadly the other boy — one with a rare blood cancer who lived in Eugene — died before a match was found.

“If he had had a match just a month sooner, he may have lived,” she said. “I took the loss of Rio hard.”

While a bone marrow transplant won’t cure her son, Pinon is actively helping other families tap into resources.

“As a cancer mom, people have come into my life that normally would not have,” she said. “The childhood cancer community is very tight-knit.”

At the upcoming event, potential donors will learn more about the registry, transplant procedures and expectations.

An online account will be created and a swab of cheek cells collected. Those unable to make the event can order a cheek swab kit online at http://join.bethematch.org.

For those age 18 to 44, there is no cost to join the registry. Individuals age 45 to 60 who wish to join will need to pay $100 to cover costs.

Prospective donors will need to be U.S. residents, meet health guidelines and be willing to stay committed until they age out. Because of genetic complexity, matching donors to patients may take weeks, months or years.

A patient’s likelihood of having a matched, available donor on the Be the Match registry ranges from 23 percent to 77 percent, depending on ethnic background.

Once on the registry, potential donors “need to be dedicated, committed, and when they get the call, ready to go,” said Pinon. A donor may help a child or an adult locally, across the country, or “as far away as Africa.”

“It’s a small sacrifice.”

Reach Grants Pass freelance writer Tammy Asnicar at tammyasnicar@q.com.

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