FIGHT FOR MIKE: 19-Year-Old Battles Against Leukemia

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From left: Older brother Anthony Sakata, Michael Sakata, Los Angeles Clippers forward Matt Barnes (center back), younger sister Cristina (center front), father Tracy Sakata and mother Corina Sakata. (Photo by IIyssa Pahia)

By HEATHER ITO, Nichi Bei Weekly

ROSEVILLE, Calif. — Despite the scorching 100-degree weather, Los Angeles Clippers forward Matt Barnes and former Sacramento Kings point guard Bobby Jackson joined about 45 other people to play in a golf tournament at the Woodcreek Golf Club in Roseville on June 30 to raise money for 19-year-old leukemia patient Michael Sakata.

Barnes, who lost his mother to cancer in 2007, said it was great to help raise money for a good cause, while playing golf with friends and family at the same time.

“When (Sakata’s) family and my friend called me up and asked if I wanted to be a part of (the tournament fundraiser), it was definitely something I wanted to do,” he said.

Sakata met Barnes in February after one of Barnes’ games. His father, Tracy Sakata, has a friend who grew up with Barnes and was able to get them passes to meet him after a game.

After being asked to join the golf tournament, Barnes asked Jackson, who won the tournament, to participate as well.

Tracy Sakata said it felt overwhelming to see professional players help raise money.

“It just shows what kind of good people they are,” he said. “It means a lot to me that they came out to do this — not for me, for my son.”

As a sports fan, Michael Sakata said it was a big deal for him to meet Barnes and Jackson, and it felt surreal to see them play golf at the local course.

From Side Pain to Diagnosis

Michael Sakata, who has been fighting leukemia for a year and a half, said his troubles began in January 2012, when he suffered intense pain on the left side of his torso, right below his rib cage. He said it “felt like a running cramp, except a little more intense.” Having just played basketball that night, Sakata thought it was just a side cramp from exercising.

The next few days, Sakata went to work as usual, just dealing with the pain, but he did not go to the gym. When he woke up that Friday morning, the pain had intensified and shifted completely to his right side.

“Through the night it just, boom, switched sides,” he said. “I got up and I couldn’t even stand up straight.”

Sakata’s parents took him to the emergency room. The ER doctors said he was suffering from appendicitis, but the computed tomography scan came out negative. Thinking that he had a viral infection, the doctors sent him home for the weekend. However, after examining his blood, the doctors called the Sakatas the following Monday and told them that he had leukemia.

Sakata underwent additional blood tests with his regular doctor, who also said the tests showed signs of leukemia, then returned to the ER for more blood tests. Later in the week, he also had bone marrow tests done, which were positive for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). Sakata began receiving treatment by the beginning of the next week.

“I guess ALL spreads so fast that they have to attack it, treat it right away, or else it just goes everywhere,” Tracy Sakata said.

In June 2012, Michael Sakata began to feel pain in his right eye. The pain eventually caused him to lose sight in that eye. His father said that the leukemia swelled the optic nerve of his son’s eye so much that it stopped the blood flow to the retina, killing the nerve.

After losing sight in his right eye, Michael Sakata underwent radiation and heavy chemotherapy once again, reducing the leukemia to almost nothing by August 2012. However, after beginning the maintenance therapy phase that November, the cancer rose to 0.01 percent and continued to rise despite the treatment. By April 2013, as tests showed that the leukemia had risen to almost 67 percent, he underwent another 15 days of heavy chemotherapy to reduce the count to almost nothing.

Education Interrupted

Sakata graduated from Roseville High School, where he played football, in 2011 and is currently attending Sierra College. However, his attendance has been interrupted many times because of the time he has spent at the hospital receiving treatment. From the end of 2012 up until his relapse in April, Sakata was attending classes normally.

“Here he was happy to be (at school) every day and he hardly missed any days, but it ended up where he had to drop his classes,” his father said.

Prior to his relapse last spring, Sakata said he had begun looking into pursuing a computer science degree, meeting with a counselor before being readmitted later that week. Sakata said he’d eventually like to transfer to a University of California or a state college out of the city.

Receiving Support

At the golf tournament, Sakata said he felt well enough to play about six holes, sitting out midway because his allergies were acting up, but he handled the heat better than he had expected.

He said he has been feeling fairly normal for the most part, but he does not have as much energy as he should.

“At this point, I’m just used to it,” he said. “I think my body is just so used to it by now that I can just function off of it normally.”

Sakata, who is of Japanese and Mexican descent, lives in Roseville with his father, a UPS truck driver; his mother Corina, a dental office manager; older brother Anthony; and younger sister Cristina.

In addition to the golf tournament, which drew an additional 50 people for the dinner portion of the event later that day, Tracy Sakata said they also held a car wash to raise money. Relatives hosted a poker fundraiser in April while Michael Sakata was in the hospital. “Fight for Mike” T-shirts, with the slogan “Because losing is not an option,” and wristbands are sold at each event.

A donation website (www.youcaring.com/medical-fundraiser/fightformike/63764) is also online, and has raised $3,395 as of Friday. Supporters can receive updates on his condition and what he is up to on the Facebook page, www.facebook.com/FightforMike.Sakata.

“Me and my wife, we can’t thank everybody enough,” Tracy Sakata said. He said they have received donations from people they don’t know personally and six people from his delivery route sponsored holes at the golf tournament, while others attended the fundraiser.

“It was kinda overwhelming at first,” Michael Sakata said, regarding the amount of support he has been receiving. He said he talks to his parents about the fundraisers at home. “Then you actually show up and there’s a bunch of people there for you. It’s pretty cool but kind of shocking at the same time.”

Next Steps

Sakata is currently seeing doctors at Sutter General Hospital in Sacramento and is receiving a second opinion from doctors at Stanford in order to ensure that the right steps are taken for his treatment. His father said the doctors at both locations said it is best to do the bone marrow transplant once the leukemia has again been reduced to nothing.

“They said he’s 19, just do the bone marrow transplant (and) then he won’t have to look over his shoulder again,” Tracy Sakata said, noting that five potential bone marrow donors have been found, one of whom received additional testing for the match at the end of June. The family should know within a few weeks how close of a match that person is.

Two umbilical cords that are Sakata’s exact match are also available, but his doctors said that having a live donor is best. The umbilical cords will be the second transplant option if they cannot find the right live donor for the transplant.

From left: Tracy Sakata, Michael Sakata and former Sacramento Kings point guard Bobby Jackson. Jackson and Los Angeles Clippers forward Matt Barnes took part in the golf tournament. (Photo by Kenji G. Taguma)

Struggle to Find Matches

Because Sakata is of Japanese and Mexican ancestry, the need for new donors to register is crucial. Unlike blood donations, bone marrow matches depend more on the ethnicity of the individual donating their marrow and the individual receiving the transplant.

According to Carol Gillespie, Asian American Donor Program’s executive director, it will be difficult to find a perfect match for Sakata because of his mixed ancestry.

“Since certain stem cell characteristics are unique to people of specific ancestry, it is often the case that minority patients are more likely to find a match within their own minority group than they are to find a match outside of their own race or ethnicity,” Gillespie said in an email interview. “It would be very unusual to find Mexican antigens in someone that is Japanese and vice versa. Therefore a mixed person will be his best match.”

Not only is it hard to find bone marrow matches for people of mixed ancestry, but it’s also hard to find matches within most minority groups, especially within Asian American communities.

“Currently, the multiethnic community is underrepresented in the national registry and we need to change this. We need to grow the registry so these patients have a second chance to live,” Gillespie said. “A marrow transplant is the only known cure for many of these blood cancers.”

Cancer survivor Ryan Manansala, who battled leukemia for a year before receiving a transplant, understands how difficult it is to find a match for Asian individuals.

“First, you can’t really believe (that a match was found) because, especially for a bone marrow match, it’s almost like hitting the lottery,” he said while speaking during the bone marrow drive awareness presentation at the 2013 Northern California Soy and Tofu Festival on June 1 in San Francisco’s Japantown. “Because I’m Filipino, (they say) the percentage is about 0.02 percent chance of actually finding a match.”

Manansala said he saw many people who needed bone marrow transplants while he was in the hospital.

“It’s different when you hear10,000 need (a transplant) every year, and actually see it,” he said. “I just wanted to tell you that a lot of people do need it and they’re still in the hospital, they’re still waiting.”

Ease of Registration

AADP outreach coordinator Thi Ly said donor registration is quick and simple and involves no needles.

“All you’re doing is filling out a consent form and doing cheek swabs,” she said. “Pretty much it’s just (cotton swabs), brushing it inside the corners of your cheeks for about 10 seconds each and you’re done. That’s it.”

According to the National Marrow Donor Program, doctors choose Be the Match registry members between the ages 18 and 44 more than 90 percent of the time. Donors must also be in good general health.

Vincent Pan, a bone marrow donor and executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, said it is important to dispel that the myths in Asian American communities regarding marrow donations and going to the hospital. He believes the odds can be changed if more people in the community register as donors and spread awareness about the need.

Pan, who also spoke at this year’s Soy and Tofu Festival presentation with Manansala, said he felt no pain during the marrow extraction procedure because he received general anesthesia, and he was released from the hospital the same day.

“When you hear about stories from people like myself who have donated, people tend to make it a big deal because it is a big deal for the patients and the recipients because you really save someone’s life,” he said. “When you actually have (donated), it’s actually so easy and so safe and so straightforward that it is a little embarrassing in terms of how much attention it gets.”

On the Web:

Northern California — Asian American Donor Program, www.aadp.org

Southern California — Asians for Miracle Marrow Matches (A3M), www.a3mhope.org/

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