Adult cancer patients undergoing lifesaving bone marrow transplants at Memorial Sloan Kettering recently found an active way to lend their support to a fund-raising walk that celebrates marrow donation and helps people with blood cancers.
On September 16, they held their own walk — circling the hallways of Memorial Hospital’s bone marrow transplant (BMT) unit — to support the Be The Match marrow registry and to celebrate their marrow donors, MSK’s medical staff, and the renewed chance at life offered by their transplants. The procession took place four days before the official Be the Match Walk+Run at Manhattan’s South Street Seaport.
During the in-house mini race, MSK patients walked with doctors, nurses, and caregivers around the festively decorated eighth floor unit, traversing a course complete with a start and finish line. They also signed “Messages of Thanks,” which later were put on display for supporters walking and running at the official outdoor event.
A Robust Transplant Program
“We were thrilled to participate with Be The Match and offer our patients the chance to join in the fun and festive atmosphere of the event,” said Sergio A. Giralt, Chief of the Adult Bone Marrow Transplant Service at MSK. “Our physicians perform more than 400 transplants each year, of which more than 100 are facilitated by marrow or blood stem cells provided by donors. We are committed to improving outcomes through pioneering research, and our success would not be possible without the support of donor match programs like Be The Match.”
Be The Match, operated by the National Marrow Donor Program, manages the world’s largest and most diverse listing of volunteer marrow donors and umbilical cord blood — an additional source of blood-forming stem cells that increasingly is being used in the treatment of blood cancers. The official New York City Walk+Run on September 20 raised funds to support marrow transplant research, help patients afford transplants, and add potential donors to the registry.
Celebrating Donors and a New Beginning
Transplantation patients typically spend several weeks in the hospital before and after the procedure because their immune systems are very fragile. The safer “race” around the BMT unit gave patients and their families a chance to share in the celebration. A few patients who still couldn’t participate cheered on walkers from their rooms as the crowd passed their doors.
One patient-walker, Jeff Scarpitti, had been in the BMT unit for five days receiving chemotherapy and radiation in preparation for a transplant to treat follicular lymphoma. “It’s certainly good to give back to all the participants who are trying to raise awareness and money for the bone marrow transplant team,” he said. “We’re here to encourage them.”
Another patient-walker, Eileen Grimes, received her transplant August 20 and was discharged in early September, but returned to the BMT unit to take part in the walk and show her support. “The staff here is fabulous — these are very cool people. It was definitely worth my day to come back,” she said.
Ms. Grimes underwent a transplant to treat leukemia and myelodysplastic syndrome. “I have five older brothers and unfortunately not one of them was a match,” she said, so the registry was essential to finding a donor.Back to top
A Need for More Donors
There is still a pressing need for more bone marrow donors. Every year, more than 12,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with blood cancers, and a bone marrow transplant is usually the best hope for a cure. Most people — about 70 percent — won’t have a marrow donor in their family and must rely on groups such as Be the Match to find an unrelated donor who adequately matches the recipient.
The closeness of the match is determined by human leukocyte antigens (HLAs), proteins that help regulate the immune response. If a donor’s HLA proteins closely resemble those of the patient, it increases the chance the transplant will succeed and reduces the risk of post-treatment complications. The registry has greatly increased the chances of finding a donor with a compatible HLA match.
Dr. Giralt pointed to the potential for the registry to help patients in minority groups who have a more difficult time finding a good match. “People from minority or mixed-lineage backgrounds are not heavily represented, so drives that raise awareness are important to get people from these groups enrolled,” he said.
He also noted the astonishing progress that has been made in expanding the donor base over a short period. “When I started doing this in the early 1990s, seven out of ten leukemia patients did not have the option for transplantation because a match could not be found,” he said. “Because of the registry and the availability of cord blood cells, we can now find matching donations for eight out of ten patients. That is truly a miracle.”
To learn more about stem cell transplantation, read a Q&A with experts on our Adult Bone Marrow Transplantation Service about the procedure, the recovery process, and becoming a donor.Back to top