Four minutes. That is how long it may take you to read this article. That is how long it may take you to listen to your favorite song. That is also the length of time that elapses before another person is diagnosed with a blood cancer in the United States. Fifteen people will be diagnosed in the next hour and 360 people will be diagnosed by the end of today. For those diagnosed, their lives will be irrevocably changed. Some will need months of intensive therapies and others will need lifelong treatment.
Blood cancers (like leukemia, lymphoma, myeloma, myelodysplastic syndrome and myeloproliferative disorders) affect the production of blood cells and their many functions, such as fighting off infections or preventing serious bleeding. Most of these cancers start in the bone marrow where blood is produced.
For many patients with blood cancers, a stem cell transplant will be part of their treatment and may be their best or only chance for a cure. Donor stem cells give rise to a new immune system that has the potential to view the cancerous cells as foreign and lead to their eradication.
Approximately 70 percent of patients who need a transplant do not have a matching donor in the family and instead need to rely on the Be The Match Registry through the National Marrow Donor Program and other international cooperative registries. Even with an impressive 11 million donors in the registry, six in 10 patients cannot find a genetic match. The probability is even lower for those of diverse ancestry (i.e. African Americans, American Indians, Alaska natives, Asians including South Asians, Pacific Islanders including Hawaiian natives, Hispanics and multiple races).
Those who register mail back a swab of cheek cells that are used for tissue typing and matching. On average, one in 500 members will be selected to donate their stem cells in one of two ways. Peripheral blood stem cell donation is a non-surgical, outpatient procedure that collects stem cells over a six hour period via the peripheral blood. Bone marrow donation is a 1-2 hour surgical procedure performed under anesthesia where marrow cells are collected from the pelvic bone using a syringe.
As you near the end of this article, one more patient was diagnosed with a blood cancer. That person may need a stem cell transplant in the future. You could be the person that gives them a second chance at life and a potential for a cure.
To learn more about the registry visit http://bethematch.org.
Vimal D. Patel, MD, is a medical oncologist in the Blood and Marrow Transplant Program at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey.