Twenty years ago this month, I received the incredible news that would save my life. An exhaustive four-year search for a compatible bone marrow donor had finally resulted in a match, and after a successful transplant, my battle with leukemia at last was over. It was that search for a match and the overwhelming outpouring of support I received that inspired me to establish the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation.
According to the American Cancer Society, approximately 43,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with leukemia each year. At the time I was diagnosed, bone marrow was the gold standard. There was no more effective treatment, and in fact, it remains an excellent option for many patients today. If there was a downside, however, it was the challenge associated with attracting potential donors. The procedure, while perfectly safe, involves extracting bone marrow from the pelvic bone through a needle, and intimidated many from ever registering.
That all changed 15 years ago, when registered donors were offered the opportunity to give peripheral blood stem cells -- a procedure many donors compare to giving plasma -- rather than bone marrow. Survival rates for patients receiving stem cells were as good as for those receiving bone marrow, and over time, blood stem cells became the more frequently requested cell source. Today, approximately 80 percent of transplants involve peripheral blood stem cells, compared to 20 percent that involve bone marrow.
What is most remarkable about this paradigm shift is the unprecedented opportunity it provides us to register donors. For many years, fear of the bone marrow donation process was the biggest obstacle to recruiting potentially life-saving matches. Today, with advances in science having made it easier than ever to save a life, our challenge is erasing the outdated misconception that being a donor is something to fear.
More than 90 percent of donors called for transplants are between the ages of 18 and 45, so the need for young volunteers is particularly urgent. Men and women in New York City and across the country want to help, and if we can educate more about how easy it is, we can save thousands of lives.
How do you register? If you are in overall good health and between the ages of 18 and 60, go to www.giftoflife.org. There you can send for a cheek swab kit, or find a donor drive near you where donors 45 or under can register free by swabbing in person. Your swab will be used to test your tissue and connect you with a potential match.
On June 11 at Gift of Life's 15th Annual Partners for Life Gala, three donors will meet for the first time the transplant recipients whose lives they saved. As the day approaches, I am reminded of the first time I met Becky, my miracle match, and the extraordinary power to save a life that an ordinary person can possess. You have that power. Will you choose to give the gift of life?
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