By Mylika Scatliffe,
AFRO Women’s Health Writer

N’Kiia Stallworth, 42 of Providence, RI needs a game. His multiple myeloma is not an incurable disease. In fact, you might just be the solution she needs.

Stallworth and others like her can be cured with a blood stem cell transplant.

Multiple myeloma is a cancer of plasma cells. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) definition, plasma cells are white blood cells that make antibodies that protect us from infections. In myeloma, cells overgrow, crowding out normal bone marrow cells that make red blood cells, platelets, and other white blood cells. Multiple myeloma is the most common type of plasma cell tumour. It grows in the bone marrow and can spread throughout the body.

The challenge for Stallworth is that black patients have a 29% chance of finding a matched donor, compared to 79% for white patients. White and black patients seeking a donor have drastically different experiences due to the fact that there simply aren’t enough registered black donors.

Be The Match® is an organization that facilitates blood stem cell transplants with the goal of replacing a patient’s malformed blood cells with healthy ones. Most of the time, donations are collected through a non-surgical procedure. Blood is taken from one of the donor’s arms, the necessary cells are extracted, and the blood is returned to the body. The process is similar to plasma donation.

Stallworth was diagnosed with multiple myeloma about 14 months ago. She admittedly went through a lot of emotions when first receiving her diagnosis and didn’t even really want to talk about it. Then she discovered that she needed a blood stem cell transplant.

“I didn’t even know it was a thing until I was diagnosed. We – as minorities – really need to donate blood to have a chance of getting this life-saving remedy, and so no one has to wait a year or even longer, hoping to get a compatibility,” said Stallworth.

A patient’s chance of having a matched donor available in the registry ranges from 29% to 79%, depending on the patient’s ethnicity. Since the genetic markers used in matching are inherited, donors are more likely to find a match with someone of the same ethnicity. More than 75 different diseases, including leukemia and lymphoma, aplastic anemia, multiple myeloma, sickle cell disease and immunodeficiency disorders, can be cured or treated with blood stem cell transplantation.

Only 8% of Be The Match registrants identify as black or African American.

Erica Jensen, vice president of marketing and a member of Be The Match’s engagement, registration and experience team, said one of her key responsibilities is to increase the diversity of the register.

“Historically, marketing was primarily in white communities and there wasn’t enough focus, relationships and programs to connect with more diverse communities. We are committed to changing that,” Jensen said. Among other things, we have hired more diverse staff and created an HBCU trainee program which is being expanded to include 30 HBCUs.”

Jensen further explained that he encountered obstacles due to medical mistrust due to the way black bodies were treated and the history of predatory practices against black people.

“We are very careful and transparent in our responses to people’s questions. No, we will not share your DNA with law enforcement databases or government agencies. Yes, doctors will hold your safety in as high regard as the recipient patient and the donor patient. No, your stem cells will not be harvested just to help white people and/or wealthy people,” Jensen said.

Be The Match makes sure to take care of all the needs of a donor. When a match is found, everything is made easier for the donor, including the choice of a collection center close to the donor. However, if travel and accommodation are necessary for the donor, they are covered at no cost to the donor, including a travel companion for the donor if required.

“It’s more likely than not that a donor will just go to a collection center near them. But, for example, if you’re in Nebraska, you might need to go to a collection center in Seattle or somewhere in Texas, we’ll book and cover your accommodations If you need to take an Uber across town to the meeting, it’s covered If you need to pay for a babysitter or baby walker of dogs to be able to make a donation, it will not cost you anything.

Be The Match ® statistics on the odds of finding a match by ethnicity or race. (Courtesy picture)

As stated above, the collection process is straightforward. Prior to collection, the donor receives daily injections for five days to stimulate the body’s stem cells. A donor can go to a center to have the injections done or receive a kit to do the injections at home.

Approximately 85% of the time, donations are made by non-surgical means. The remaining 15% of the time, bone marrow is removed during an outpatient surgery that takes place in a hospital under general or regional anesthesia.

People between the ages of 18 and 40 who meet the health eligibility criteria can join the Be The Match Registry by visiting BeTheMatch.org, completing a medical history form, and swabbing the cheek cells with a home kit sent to the declarer’s home.

They also sponsor in-person “donor events” to encourage people to register as donors, and where potential registrants can be informed about the process.

We need more young people from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds to sign up to help patients looking for a match. People between the ages of 18 and 35 are most in demand by transplant doctors, as this age group has been shown to have the greatest potential for successful transplantation.

Most importantly, anyone considering signing up for Be The Match should seriously consider their commitment to the process before signing up. There is no legal obligation for a registrant to participate, but a last-minute decision not to donate could put a patient’s life at risk.

Less than 50% of registrants are able or willing to donate when asked.

“There are two challenges in getting enough black donors: getting enough to sign up, and then when they’ve been matched with a patient, getting them through the donation process,” Jensen said. “We’ll contact someone and say they’re a good fit for a patient in need and they’ll ‘ghost’ us or refuse to follow us saying they don’t have time or don’t like needles .”

Donors must be willing to donate to anyone when asked, as donations to specific patients are not permitted. All registry searches are anonymous, and donor and recipient patients can consent to exchange information one to two years after donation.

Stallworth hammered the pavement to urge people in his area to sponsor swab events.

“I’ve put up flyers everywhere, even on dumpsters to encourage people to sign up and to encourage companies to sponsor swab events or allow them to take place on their premises,” Stallworth said. . “Even if no match is made for me, I don’t want anyone to have to wait like I’m waiting.”

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