The Stem Cell Solution
Could these tiny building blocks of our bodies be the key to increasing cancer survival rates in Blacks? New transplant treatments offer hope.
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Finding a match
The key to ensuring that African Americans who need stem cell transplants get them is increasing the numbers of African Americans who are willing to join the National Marrow Registry through its Be the Match initiative. There is a shortage of African American registry members, which also means that it is more difficult for those needing a stem cell transplant.
Barbara Rozier knows the importance of finding more Blacks to join. She’s worked with Be the Match for 15 years, now as the supervisor of recruitment and community development in North Central District, based in Detroit. But for her, it’s personal. In 1998, her daughter needed a stem cell transplant.
“She underwent four years of radiation and four years of chemotherapy to stay alive while we waited for a match, so she could have a transplant,” Rozier says. Back then, there were a lot fewer donors of color. “Out of the 6 million donors who were on the registry at that time, they found a gentleman in Florida who was a match and willing to donate. He was the only match out of the whole registry.
“At Be the Match, we do 20 bone marrow drives a month in the city,” Rozier adds. With a small staff, the outreach is made possible through partnerships with churches, civic groups, individuals and the UAW. “African Americans just need to be made aware of the need for donors,” she says.
The process of getting screened is painless. Where once, initial screening happened with a blood draw, it is now as easy as filling out a form and doing a cheek swab at a donor drive. The swab is sent to a lab and the tissue type is entered into the registry.
Rozier says the numbers over the years have remained steady, but the news about Robin Roberts did cause a bump in people becoming potential donors.
Barbara Howard stepped up to become a part of the national registry while attending a women’s expo event in downtown Detroit back in 1995.
“There was a table and, back then, they did take blood to get you in the registry. So I did.” But Howard says joining the registry doesn’t mean that you will get called right away. “Every year, you expect a call, but for me, the call didn’t come until 2000—a whole five years later,” Howard says.
“But when you get the call to tell you that you are a match with someone and you could be saving a life, is overwhelming.” She says she would tear up every time she thought about it.
Howard went through a series of tests to make sure she was healthy enough to donate. Her marrow was harvested in a minor surgical procedure at University of Michigan and rushed on flight to St. Louis for a stem cell transplant for a man with acute leukemia. Because of her donation, the young man has gone on to get married and have a full life, she says.
“For me, it was pretty painless. They gave me a mild anesthesia, got the marrow from my pelvic bone—and sent me home,” Howard says. “I went home the same day and went to sleep, but I was walking around the next day. There was really no down time.” And as for the marrow and cells she donated, she says, “you just regenerate it.“
Howard has no regrets about being a donor. “It was a positive experience and, if they called me again, I would do it again,” she says. “For whatever minor discomfort you might feel, I would say think about the recipient. Or think about what a gift it would be for you, or someone you love, if they needed it.“
Dezmon Cole has not yet found the donor match she needs to proceed with her stem cell transplant. But she isn’t just sitting around waiting for a donor to appear.
“I decided that this year, for my birthday in February, I (would give) myself a donor match,” Cole says. She recently threw a party/donor drive at Mayflower Lanes Bowling Center in Redford to not only find a donor for herself, but hopefully for others.
If you are interested in potentially saving a life by being a donor, or hosting a donor drive, contact the Detroit Be the Match offices at 313-833-2624 or BetheMatch.org.