Anyone who has ever watched a loved one battle cancer knows the overwhelming feeling of helplessness that it brings. Even though I was just 13 when my mother was diagnosed with leukemia, I very clearly remember that in addition to being sad and scared, I felt frustrated that I couldn't do anything to save her. Science has come a long way since my mom passed away in 1991, but I continue to be frustrated each time I talk to a patient or the family of a patient struggling to overcome blood cancer. While it's certainly no consolation for the unfair physical and emotional toll this disease takes on individuals and their families, I have found that having a tangible way to "do something" has been helpful for my healing.
For my family, "doing something" started when my mom was sick. The doctors told us that a bone marrow transplant could save her life, but the best odds of us finding a match were one in 20,000, and at that time there were only 3,000 people registered to be potential donors in our home country of Germany. My father made it his mission to find my mom a donor and with the help of family and friends we worked tirelessly for a year and registered 68,000 people. Of course not all those people knew my family or someone suffering from blood cancer, but they were inspired by our spirit and dedication, and for many of them, by the opportunity to "do something" to save a life.
And for those who are able to make a donation -- regardless of if they've been personally touched by the disease -- the reward is immeasurable. For most donors, the opportunity to give a potentially life-saving gift is a life-changing experience and one they feel honored to have.
I'd love if everyone could have that opportunity, but right now there are some things standing in the way. The fact is, most people know very little about the bone marrow donation process, and quite often, have outdated or inaccurate ideas about how it works. People worry that donating will be painful, time consuming or medically risky. It's not.
These myths deter many people from registering as potential lifesavers for patients in desperate need of their help. And because not enough people register to be potential donors, 60 percent of patients fighting blood diseases like leukemia, lymphoma, sickle cell anemia and aplastic anemia won't receive potentially life-saving transplants.
In my mother's honor, I've made it my life's work to grow the number of donors on the international bone marrow registry and part of that is educating the public on the urgent need for quality donors in the registry and the truth about donation.
So here's what you need to know:
- Each year, 20,000 U.S. patients look to a bone marrow transplant as their only hope for survival.
- Only 30 percent of patients find a donor within their families and 14,000 per year rely on the registry to find a match.
- Minority patients have a more difficult time in finding a match as they are underrepresented on the registry.
- Registering to be a potential donor is quick, easy and free.
Currently, there are millions of compassionate individuals around the world who have registered, but given how difficult it can be to find a match, that's not enough. It's imperative that the registry continue to grow, as every new person added to the registry increases the chance of a patient finding a lifesaving match. The power to "do something" to potentially save a life is within you -- won't you use it?
Follow Katharina Harf on Twitter: www.twitter.com/KatharinaHarf