If more people knew how easy it is to become a bone marrow or stem cell donor, perhaps more lives could be saved, said one Elburn mother whose son is fighting an aggressive form of leukemia.
Nichole Techter said that after her son’s devastating diagnosis, she’s determined to tell as many people as possible about getting screened to be a marrow or stem cell donor for critically ill patients.
“I want people to get educated to know how easy it is [to get screened to be a donor],” she said. “I thought it was a painful surgery, I thought you had to be related [to the patient] ... but that’s not true. No one told me. It’s easy. It’s a mouth swab. And 90% of the time, it’s a blood draw to donate stem cells.”
Techter’s son, Frankie, 11, will need a stem cell transplant after being diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in February. The sixth grader at Kaneland Harter Middle School has been undergoing treatment at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago and is stable as he awaits a stem cell donor.
On April 8, friends of the Techter family organized a Be the Match donation event at Lions Club Park, where about 160 people between the ages of 18 and 40 got their cheek swabbed in hopes they will be a stem cell match for Frankie or anyone else who may need a transplant.
Terri Haid, an account manager for Be the Match Illinois, works to set up donation drives across the Chicago area. She said the goal was to educate people and provide opportunities to join the national Be the Match registry.
“Joining takes about five minutes and involves a digital form completed on your cellphone and a cheek swab,” she said. “We run drives at colleges, companies, community events and anywhere people 18 to 40 gather. We are always looking for people willing to host drives to spread awareness of the registry in their communities. Once they understand the process and how easy it is to save a life, people are usually willing and eager to join the registry.”
According to Be the Match, about 12,000 patients are diagnosed with life-threatening blood cancers or other diseases such as sickle cell. A blood stem cell transplant from an unrelated donor may be their best or only hope for a cure. A blood stem cell transplant can cure or treat more than 75 diseases, including leukemia and lymphoma, aplastic anemia, sickle cell and immune-deficiency disorders.
Patients are more likely to match with a donor from their ethnic background. According to Be the Match, the odds of a Caucasian patient finding a stem cell donor match is 79%, the odds of a Black patient finding a match is 29% and the odds of a Hispanic or Latino patient finding a match is 48%.
Haid said she can’t estimate the odds of a person on the registry being called upon to donate. While the donor and patient don’t have to have the same blood type, other genetic factors need to match. Donors may decline to participate even if they are found to be a match for a patient.
“Doctors prefer younger donors because younger donors improve outcomes for patients, which is why we’re asking individuals 18 to 40 years old to join the registry,” she said.
Techter said her son always had been healthy, so his diagnosis came as “a complete shock.” She said he was very tired in the days before his diagnosis, but she became more concerned when she noticed “suspicious” dark bruises on his body.
After his pediatrician ordered a blood draw, the family was notified a few hours later that they needed to go to Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital immediately for more tests. Later that evening, the diagnosis of AML was confirmed.
“In the beginning I was in disbelief, but now I’m in ‘fight mode,’” Techter said. “Now I’m much more optimistic. He’s got a good team on his side, especially if we can find a [stem cell] match.”
Techter said she is hoping that by sharing her family’s story, more people will join the Be the Match registry, and more parents will be aware of suspicious symptoms their child may have such as excessive bruising.
“So many signs can be attributed to something else ... growing pains or the flu. If your ‘mom siren’ is going off, listen to it,” she said. “I just [want people] to get swabbed when they’re 18. We as Americans can help other Americans. This is something we can do right now to cure certain cancers for people. You could be the superhero for someone. You can save a life by getting your mouth swabbed. If you’re 18 to 40, you have that ability to help. It’s really important for people to know that.”
To order an at-home cheek swab kit to see if you are a match for Frankie or other patients in need of a stem cell or bone marrow donor, visit https://my.bethematch.org/Frankie.