“I was a senior in high school, on a nationally ranked basketball team,” recalls David Lindsay, 40, of Charlotte, N.C. “But during practices, I felt really fatigued and achy. So, before our first game, I went to my doctor for what I thought would be iron pills.
“But when he saw me, he said I looked like Casper the Ghost, and took some blood tests. Two hours later, I was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). That was the end of my glory days.”
Leukemia is cancer of the white blood cells, which are formed in the body’s bone marrow and help to fight infection. According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), cancer in children and adolescents is rare. But ALL is the most common cancer in children, representing 23 percent of cancer diagnoses among those younger than 15. It occurs in about one of every 29,000 children in the United States each year.
In quest of a cure, Lindsay began six months of intensive chemotherapy. And, by the following summer of 1989, “feeling terrific” and with his hair grown back, he started his freshman year at Davidson College. Through weekly blood tests and monthly bone marrow checks, everything went well. Then, at exam time, the cancer came back.
“It was a shock. That’s when the doctors told us that my best—and only—chance for a cure was a bone marrow transplant,” says Lindsay. In a transplant, a patient’s diseased bone marrow is destroyed, then replaced with healthy bone marrow from a donor.
Most times, donors must have the same genetic typing as the patient, so that their blood-forming cells in the marrow “match” the patient’s. Typically, a patient’s full brothers and sisters have the highest chance—25 percent each—of being a perfect match.
In Lindsay’s case, his then 7-year old sister, Lee, now 28 and a social worker in Raleigh, proved a perfect match. “It’s become happy family lore that Lee and I are twins, 12 years apart!” Lindsay smiles. Two months later, on February 28,1990, at the University of Minnesota Hospitals in Minneapolis, Lindsay got his transplant from Lee.
Another long year would pass before DNA testing finally confirmed that the bone marrow in David’s body was 100 percent Lee’s, and he was cured.
“The only chance he had was my bone marrow. I donated two bags,” Lee recalls. “He was my big brother hero, and he needed me. Bone marrow transplants are another possibility at life.”
Thanks to his sister, David has led a full life. He’s married, the proud father of two children, and now serves as the executive director of Project Life, a non-profit organization that educates college students about the promise of bone marrow transplantation and facilitates their joining the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP).
Would Lee donate her bone marrow again? “Look at David. I can’t think why anyone wouldn’t do it,” she says. “It’s an opportunity to save someone’s life. It’s beyond amazing.”
Calvin Jackson, 52-year old chief of the NIH News Media Branch, couldn’t agree more. As a 35-year-old reporter for NIH Radio News, he’d done a story on the need for more people, especially minorities, to join the NMDP.
“I joined, gave a blood sample, and then got the call—two years later. I’d forgotten, but I answered, ‘Yes, I’ll donate,’” he recalls, despite his wife’s concern about possible side effects. Unfortunately, the man who received Jackson’s bone marrow did not survive his bout with leukemia. Despite the failure, Jackson was profoundly moved by the experience.
He readily agreed to join the NMDP’s Board of Directors, subsequently serving two terms. “At first, it was intimidating because I was not a physician, just an average donor,” he says. But, it soon became clear that everyone on the Board has the same goal ... to help facilitate transplants and save lives. He became an advocate for donors, dedicated to patient safety.
“I wouldn’t hesitate to donate again. It’s an overwhelmingly positive experience. I jump at every opportunity to talk about the program.” Jackson is particularly concerned that minorities be encouraged to donate because their need is so great. Whatever their ethnic background, he tells everyone, “There is no reason not to give!”
Thirty-eight thousand people in the U.S. develop a blood cancer every year, and, for 16,000 of them, a bone marrow transplant is the best treatment option, notes Susan F. Leitman, M.D., (at right) Chief of the Blood Services Section at the NIH Department of Transfusion Medicine.
The NIH’s Warren G. Magnuson Clinical Center Department of Transfusion Medicine operates a Marrow Donor Center for the education, recruitment, and testing of healthy persons interested in becoming potential bone marrow or blood stem cell donors. The NMDP and the NIH Marrow Donor Center are especially committed to increasing the number of potential donors of minority background to allow more minority patients to find their “perfect match.”
“African Americans have the most difficulty finding a match,” points out Susan F. Leitman, M.D., Chief of the Blood Services Section at the Department of Transfusion Medicine. “They have a much greater diversity of HLA (human leukocyte antigen) types, which are the blood proteins—or markers—used to genetically match patients and donors. We need many more African American donors.”
According to Dr. Leitman, 38,000 people in the U.S. develop a blood cancer every year, and for 16,000 of them a bone marrow transplant is the best treatment option. Some 5,000 of these find suitably matched, related donors, while another 5,000 transplants are facilitated through the NMDP Be The Match Registry.
“Unfortunately,” Dr. Leitman says, “this leaves 6,000 people a year needing a donor match. Many of these patients have healthy, unrelated HLA-matched donors in the U.S. population, she explains, adding, “It’s so easy to join the donor program; just a couple of swabs with a Q-tip from inside your cheek, then send them to an NMDP testing laboratory for typing.
“When they’re told they are a match for someone, people tell me they feel like they’ve hit the jackpot. How often do you get a chance to save a life!” she exclaims.
- Bone marrow is the spongy tissue inside some of your bones, such as your hip and thigh bones. It contains immature cells, called stem cells. The stem cells can develop into the red blood cells that carry oxygen through your body, the white blood cells that fight infections, and the platelets that help with blood clotting.
- If there is a problem with your bone marrow, a transplant can give you healthy new marrow. You could need a transplant because of a disease, such as bone marrow diseases or cancers like leukemia or lymphoma. Or you might need one if a strong cancer treatment kills your healthy blood cells.
- People with cancer sometimes donate bone marrow before treatment to be transplanted later. But often the new marrow comes from a donor, either a close family member or someone unrelated.
- Bone-marrow transplants prolong the life of patients who might otherwise die. As with all major organ transplants, however, it is difficult to find bone-marrow donors, and the cost of surgery is very high. The donor is usually a sibling with compatible tissue.
To Find Out More
- MedlinePlus: Bone Marrow Diseases
- MedlinePlus: Bone Marrow Transplantation
- National Cancer Institute: Bone Marrow Transplantation
- National Marrow Donor Program: Be the Match Registry
- Center for International Blood and Marrow Transplant Research