Multiracial, multiethnic patients struggle to find marrow matches


Because Michael Sakata is of Japanese and Mexican ancestry, the need for new donors to register is crucial. Unlike blood donations, bone marrow matches depend more on the ethnicity of the individual donating their marrow and the individual receiving the transplant.
According to Carol Gillespie, Asian American Donor Program’s executive director, it will be difficult to find a perfect match for Sakata, who has leukemia, because of his mixed ancestry.

“Since certain stem cell characteristics are unique to people of specific ancestry, it is often the case that minority patients are more likely to find a match within their own minority group than they are to find a match outside of their own race or ethnicity,” Gillespie said in an e-mail interview. “It would be very unusual to find Mexican antigens in someone that is Japanese and vice versa. Therefore a mixed person will be his best match.”

Not only is it hard to find bone marrow matches for people of mixed ancestry, but it’s also hard to find matches within most minority groups, especially within Asian American communities.

“Currently the multiethnic community is under represented in the national registry and we need to change this, we need to grow the registry so these patients have a second chance to live,” Gillespie said. “A marrow transplant is the only known cure for many of these blood cancers.”

Cancer survivor Ryan Manansala, who battled leukemia for a year before receiving a transplant, understands how difficult it is to find a match for Asian individuals.

“First you can’t really believe (that a match was found) because, especially for a bone marrow match, it’s almost like hitting the lottery,” he said while speaking during the bone marrow drive awareness presentation at the 2013 Northern California Soy and Tofu Festival on June 1 in San Francisco’s Japantown. “Because I’m Filipino, (they say) the percentage is about 0.02 percent chance of actually finding a match.”

Manansala said he saw many people who needed bone marrow transplants while he was in the hospital.

“It’s different when you hear (that) 10,000 need (a transplant) every year, and actually see it,” he said. “I just wanted to tell you that a lot of people do need it and they’re still in the hospital, they’re still waiting.”

Ease of Registration

AADP outreach coordinator Thi Ly said donor registration is quick and simple and involves no needles.

“All you’re doing is filling out a consent form and doing cheek swabs,” she said. “Pretty much it’s just (cotton swabs), brushing it inside the corners of your cheeks for about 10 seconds each and you’re done, that’s it.”

According to the National Marrow Donor Program, doctors choose Be The Match registry members between the ages 18 and 44 more than 90 percent of the time. Donors must also be in good general health.

Vincent Pan, a bone marrow donor and executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, said it is important to dispel that the myths in Asian American communities regarding marrow donations and going to the hospital. He believes the odds can be changed if more people in the community register as donors and spread awareness about the need.

Pan, who also spoke at this year’s Soy and Tofu Festival presentation with Manansala, said he felt no pain during the marrow extraction procedure because he received general anesthesia and was released from the hospital the same day.

“When you hear about stories from people like myself who have donated, people tend to make it a big deal because it is a big deal for the patients and the recipients because you really save someone’s life,” he said. “When you actually have (donated), it’s actually so easy and so safe and so straight forward that it is a little embarrassing in terms of how much attention it gets.”

Upcoming Bone Marrow Drives
AADP will appear at several Japanese American and Asian American community events this summer, including various Obon festivals and the Nihonmachi Street Fair, to tell Sakata’s story in the hopes of getting more people to register as donors, especially those of mixed ancestry.

Saturday, July 13
Sacramento Obon
2401 Riverside Blvd., Sacramento, Calif. from 6 to 8 p.m.

San Jose Obon
640 North Fifth St., San Jose’s Japantown from 1 to 8 p.m.

Sunday, July 14
San Jose Obon
640 North Fifth St., San Jose’s Japantown from noon to 4 p.m.

Saturday, July 20
Mountain View Obon
575 North Shoreline Blvd., Mountain View Calif. from 4 to 8 p.m.

Sunday, July 21
Mountain View Obon
575 North Shoreline Blvd, Mountain View, Calif. from 2 to 6 p.m.

Thursday, July 25
Nihonmachi happy hour
The Drake, 508 Fourth St., San Francisco from 6 to 8 p.m.

Saturday, Aug. 3 and Sunday, Aug. 4
Nihonmachi Street Fair
San Francisco’s Japantown from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.


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