Editorial: Be the Match, save a life 

Friday, July 14, 2017

Learning to share with one another is one of the first hurdles siblings encounter in building their lifelong relationship. It can be a hard lesson, and some never really get it.

But Ashli Stempel, a Town Council member in Greenfield, does. She allowed doctors to take bone marrow from her body and inject it into her brother Andrew’s bloodstream last year to give him his best chance to survive blood cancer. Now, she is trying to convince others to step up to help those in need.

Unfortunately, relatives are not always good tissue matches for bone marrow donation. Many blood cancer patients must look to strangers to help them. We admire Stempel’s willingness not only to try to recruit others to become donors, but to offer herself, again, to someone who finds him or herself in a situation like Andrew’s.

Gazette reporter Lisa Spear encountered Stempel a few weeks ago at a booth at a beer festival in Greenfield, where Stempel was entreating passersby to consider getting their tissue registered in a national database, Be The Match Registry, where hers is logged. Potential donors can register via a kit they can get and return by mail.

If a match is made, the donor will undergo tests to ensure he or she is healthy enough to participate. The stem cells are taken in a one-day procedure. After some soreness at the injection site, the donor is back to normal in two to seven days, according to Be The Match, which covers the costs.

The time commitment, the registry says, is about 30 hours stretched over a six-week period.

Stem cells inside the bone marrow tissue make red blood cells, which in turn feed oxygen to the organs and make white blood cells to fight infections. The bone marrow also produces blood platelets to help form clots, but when a cancer of the blood strikes, these life-supporting systems are disrupted, leaving the body’s immune system unable to fight infection and disease.

Radiation and chemotherapy used to halt these blood cancers are usually not long-term solutions and also further weaken a person’s own cells. However, they are necessary before a transplant can be done, as the body must be cancer-free when donated stem cells are injected.

The healthy stem cells essentially give the cancer patient a new immune system to fight off the disease and keep the individual well. Though there is always the risk that the patient’s body will reject the new cells, transplant, for many patients, is the best bet for survival, doctors say.

Up to 14,000 people with blood cancers seek bone marrow transplants annually, says Mary Halet of Be The Match. Ethnicity, she says, is a key factor in matching due to the complexity of the tissue. Because more donors are white, white people stand a 97 percent chance of finding a match. Meanwhile, Hispanic people have an 80 percent chance of finding a match, people of Asian descent a 72 percent chance and people of African descent 66 percent.

Though doctors say the health risk to bone marrow donors is small — infection or bleeding can occur — it is still a lot to ask of someone if the need is not personal. But as Stempel told Spear, “Everybody wants to cure cancer, but I think not everybody understands that we, ourselves, can be the cure for some types of cancers. I can say that I killed cancer. I’m pretty excited about that.”

Because of her, Andrew has been able to put cancer in the rearview mirror, regain his strength and get back to work. It must be a wonderful feeling to be responsible for that. Little sister learned her childhood lesson well.

Information about signing up for the bone marrow donor registry is available at bethedonor.com.