An Urgent Plea for Bone Marrow Donors: You Could Be the One to Save a Life

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From left: Sharon Yee, Sabrina Gee Shin, Marilyn Yu, Liane Yasumoto, Geralyn Chin, Sheri Co. (Photo by Scot Goodman)

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By Liane Yasumoto

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There have been many recent victories in sports and politics (e.g. my hometown San Francisco Giants winning the World Series; Jean Quan elected the first Asian American and female mayor of Oakland), but a real victory would be finding a bone marrow donor match for my dear friend, Sheri, and others (Asians and other ethnic groups especially) battling leukemia.

On Sept. 27, 2010, my high school close friend Sheri (Chin) Co, 43, who lives in Southern California, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and started an intense round of chemotherapy. She endured the grueling side-effects of nausea, stomach pain, fever, rash, and hair loss with amazing grace and strength.

Although her latest biopsy results showed she is in remission, Sheri requires periodic “consolidation chemo” treatments to keep the cancer cells away, and the fact remains that she is in urgent need of a bone marrow transplant to save her life.

I’m sure that like me, you’ve all seen periodic announcements in the media about children and adults desperately seeking bone marrow transplants. Although I’ve felt sympathy for those individuals flashing on the TV screen, I have admittedly never taken steps to seek out the facts about bone marrow transplants and how I could help. That changed when Sheri got cancer.

Suddenly, knowing our peer was facing “The Big C” catapulted us into an unknown world where little else matters than making sure our warm and compassionate friend, dentist, and loving wife and mother of three beautiful children is completely healed.

Sheri, four other girlfriends and I (“the girls”) were involved in student government in high school and have remained close throughout the years, managing to meet during the holidays faithfully for the past 25 years. We have all been there for each other through good times and bad times and have a sisterhood that we never take for granted.

Two years after graduating from high school, I was in a car accident and became a quadriplegic. “The girls” and other loyal friends and family continued to unconditionally love and support me, which enabled me to continue my life course with positive self-esteem and a smiling heart full of gratitude. I want to return the support and love I received from them that was undeniably instrumental to my being able to accept living with a physical disability. I am a very lucky and happy woman!

The five of us live in or close to the Bay Area and want nothing more than to locate a perfect marrow match for Sheri. Her unwavering faith has been so inspiring to all of us and keeps us strong and positive.

Startling Facts

Upon clicking on various sites and poring through articles and blogs covering the subject, the following startling facts jumped out at (and continue to haunt and motivate) me:

* Every year, more than 10,000 patients in the U.S. are diagnosed with life-threatening diseases such as leukemia or lymphoma, and their best or only hope of a cure is a transplant from an unrelated donor or cord blood unit.

* Most patients (about 70 percent) in need of a transplant do not have a matching donor in their family. They depend on the Be the Match Registry to find a match.

* Out of the 9 million people who are registered as potential donors in the national Be The Match Registry, only 7% (more than 610,000) are Asian.

* Human leukocyte antigen (HLA) typing, or tissue typing, is used to match patients and donors for marrow or cord blood transplants. Because tissue types are inherited just like skin and hair color, patients are most likely to match the tissue type of someone who shares their racial or ethnic heritage.

Could this be true? That it is not a case of not having a cure, but finding a perfect match? That increasing the ability to find the match for people of color simply rests on adding more donors from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds to the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP) Be The Match Registry?

This means that the ball is in all of our courts. There is a severely limited database of potential donors for Asians and other ethnicities. The statistics are daunting, but we can change them! It is in our control to educate others, in our ethnic communities especially, about the ease and importance of registering as a potential bone marrow donor to possibly save a life.

In my friend’s case, Sheri’s brother was not a match, so she needs to rely on finding a perfect match on the Be the Match Registry. The NMDP provides a list of bone marrow drives in various cities across the country. Visit www.marrow.org for more information.

Sheri’s family and friends have also been organizing marrow donor registry drives in Northern and Southern California. Although the “Team Sheri Drives” are in Sheri’s honor, she and her family want these efforts to reap rewards not only by finding a match for her, but to also increase other patients’ (current and future) chances of finding a match. To read the latest update or show your support for Sheri, please visit www.caringbridge.org/visit/sherico.

The registration process is simple and only takes about 10 minutes.

Potential donors need to:

* Be between the ages of 18-60;

* Complete a brief health questionnaire to verify their eligibility to join the registry;

* Sign a form consenting to have their tissue type listed on the registry until their 61st birthday;

* Use a cheek swab kit to submit a tissue sample; there are no needles involved.

If you can’t make it to a drive, you can register online and the kit will be mailed to you. After you swab your cheeks with four cotton swabs, you simply return the swabs to the kit and mail it back to the NMDP. That’s it! That’s all it takes to join the Be the Match Registry. If you are a match, the NMDP will contact you and more extensive, formal testing will be conducted at that time.

There are so many success stories, and with more people registering there will undoubtedly be even more. If you are hesitant to join, consider that the individual you might be helping one day could be your parent, child, spouse, sibling, cousin, niece, nephew, colleague, or friend. Please consider registering as a potential bone marrow donor today and help spread the word. Don’t wait. You could save a life. Or one day, an anonymous donor could save yours.

For more information, please contact the Asian American Donor Program, www.aadp.org, (800) 59-DONOR,; Asians for Miracle Marrow Matches, www.asianmarrow.org, (888) A3M-HOPE; or the National Marrow Donor Program, www.BeTheMatch.org, (800) MARROW-2.

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