The Strength to Give
Every 40 minutes someone in Australia is diagnosed with blood cancer. For hundreds of these patients every year, a blood stem cell transplant from a complete stranger with an identically matching immune system is their only hope. Finding that stranger is the job of a charity set up nearly 30 years ago, the Australian Bone Marrow Donor Registry.
Every single person has cells in their bodies which can potentially cure someone else’s blood cancer or bone marrow disease. These cells are called blood stem cells, found in the bone marrow inside your bones. When these cells are transplanted into sick patients, they start to make the healthy blood of the donor, inside the patient’s body and, with a bit of luck and a lot of care, will keep doing it for a lifetime, curing the patient once and for all.
Donating blood stem cells used to be a big deal. Today, it almost always involves a short course of injections, followed by a morning sitting in a comfy chair while the stem cells are filtered out of the donor’s blood – literally while they are watching TV or reading a book. The donor may feel like they’re coming down with the flu but they quickly bounce back.
The best donors are young – 18-30 years old – and male. Young cells are the best cells for patients, to last their lifetime, and men are generally bigger with more cells to donate than women. Today, out of 165,000 registered donors in Australia, only 4 per cent are men under 30. As a result, over 80 per cent of transplants for Australian patients use cells from a foreign donor, usually from Europe, which means hundreds of Australian patients every year have to cross their fingers and hope that the donated cells make the 36-hour journey to Australia safely. If the trip takes longer than 48 hours, the cells deteriorate. Because the patient has had their own bone marrow completely destroyed to prepare for the transplant, if the cells can’t be used then their life is critically endangered.
Some Australian patients will always struggle to find a good match outside of Australia. A patient is most likely to match identically with a donor whose family is from the same part of the world as their own. If the patient’s family is from somewhere that doesn’t have a donor registry – and many countries don’t, especially southern European, Asian, African or Middle-Eastern countries – then they depend on Australians from a similar background joining the Registry. Of course, if the patient is an Indigenous Australian, then their chances of finding a match outside of Australia are very slim.
Australian patients desperately need more men under 30 from all backgrounds to join the Australian Registry. If this is you, then you might be a dying patient’s only identical match; their best and their last hope for life.
Signing up is easy. Go to strengthtogive.org.au and hit ‘Register’. You’ll be asked a few questions, then a swab kit will be posted to you. Swab your cheeks (the kit explains how), fill out the consent form, post it all back in the reply paid envelope and the job is done. Unlike donating blood, it doesn’t matter if you’ve lived in the UK, doesn’t matter if you have tattoos, doesn’t matter if you’re gay. Unless you have (or have had) a serious cancer or autoimmune disease, you’re probably ok to join. If in doubt, the website has all of the details.
If you aren’t an 18-30 year old man, you’re bound to know someone who is. Talk to them about how they can literally save a life while watching telly. Send them a link to the Strength to Give website and encourage them to think about what it must feel like to know that your life, or the life of someone you love, depends on a single act of kindness from a complete stranger; and how it would feel to be that stranger.
Australian donors don’t think of themselves as brave or special, but ask anyone who has had their, or their loved one’s, chance for life given back to them by an anonymous stem cell donor – they’ll tell you that they are all heroes.