African-American Bone Marrow Donor Awareness Month

July is dedicated to African-American Bone Marrow Donor Awareness, but people need to join the Be The Match Registry year-round, says Jonathan Nazeer. The Greensboro, N.C., native  has saved three lives since joining Be The Match, the world’s largest and most diverse listing of potential marrow donors and donated cord blood units, in 2006.

“We all have a loved one about [whom we feel,] if we had just a few more hours or a few more days with [him or her], that would change our lives,” says Nazeer. “I think about what I was maybe able to do by

donating. I gave a family a little more hope, a few more days to spend with someone very special to them.” 

Right now, the chance of finding a match on the Be The Match Registry is close to 93 percent for Caucasians, but for African-Americans and other minorities, the chances can be as low as 66 percent. Unwarranted fears and myths prevent many, especially people of color, from being bone marrow donors.

“Many people think that donating is painful, that it always involves surgery and a long recovery. But today, the patient's doctor most often requests a peripheral blood stem cell donation, which is nonsurgical and similar to donating platelets or plasma,” says Nadya Dutchin, national account executive for Be The Match. “The second way of donating is marrow donation, which is a surgical procedure. General or regional anesthesia is always used. In each case, donors typically go home the same day they donate. Some people actually think we’re tampering with the spine or breaking open or removing bones, none of which is true. Also, donors never have to pay to donate. We reimburse travel costs and may reimburse other costs on a case-by-case basis.” 

Imani Cornelius knows that 20 years ago, her mother donated marrow to her uncle to help him beat leukemia. Because of that donation, her mother’s brother is alive today. The 11-year-old Minneapolis native now finds herself a searching patient after being diagnosed two years ago with myelodysplastic syndrome, a disease of the bone marrow and blood which, if worsens, can turn into leukemia.

Her only cure is a bone marrow transplant. The tissue types used for matching patients with donors are inherited, so patients are most likely to find a match within their own racial/ethnic heritage. For Cornelius, this search is complicated because she’s biracial.   

“I need a marrow donor, as do many other African-American or [racially] mixed people, and it's so easy to register be a donor,” says Cornelius. “It just takes people being selfless and sacrificing a little. [The human body will replenish itself after the marrow is donated.] The key to increasing the chances saving a life is by registering to be a donor and, more important, following through and donating when you are a match for someone and chosen to have the chance to save someone's life.” 

The National Marrow Donor Program created Be The Match to provide opportunities for the public to become involved in saving the lives of people with leukemia, lymphoma and other life-threatening diseases. Be The Match is a movement that engages a growing community of people inspired to help patients who need a marrow or umbilical cord blood transplant from an unrelated donor.

“In addition to joining the Be The Match Registry as a potential donor, there are many other ways to help patients,” says Dutchin. “People can make a contribution to the Be The Match Foundation, volunteer or spread the word.”  

Visit www.marrow.org/HD/StepUp/ to learn more.