Blood cancer charity issues plea for more stem cell donors

A national blood cancer charity is thanking Wigan people for going against the grain and registering as stem cell donors during lockdown.

Friday, 25th September 2020, 3:10 pm
Updated Friday, 25th September 2020, 3:12 pm

A national blood cancer charity is thanking Wigan people for going against the grain and registering as stem cell donors during lockdown.

The North West has provided the fourth highest number of registrations during lockdown, just behind London, South East and the East Midlands, it has been revealed during the current Blood Cancer Awareness Month.

There is still an urgent need for registrations to help meet the demand and reverse the shocking decline in new registrations in recent times and potentially help save a life.

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DKMS recently challenged 1,000 UK people on their knowledge and awareness of blood stem cell donation. It was in a bid to encourage the nation to rally together to help combat the impending influx of new blood cancer cases caused by a delay in diagnoses from Covid-19. DKMS is seeing a worrying rise in the gap in supply of blood stem cell donors and the demand for a blood stem cell transplant, even more so than before lockdown.

Every 20 minutes someone in the UK is diagnosed with a blood cancer, and unbeknown to 61% of people in the North West, it is the third most common cause of cancer death in the UK. A stem cell transplant can be the last hope of survival for patients and during the coronavirus outbreak, it is even more important to offer hope to people with devastating blood cancers and blood disorders, whose lives have also been harmed by the pandemic.

The survey found that while people in the North West want to help people with blood cancer, there is still widespread confusion and uncertainty about what blood stem cell donation is and what it entails which is holding people back. Over half of respondents admitted to not knowing that blood stem cell donation can be an effective treatment for people with blood cancer and while 76% said they would definitely donate their blood stem cells to help save a life, less than one per cent of people in the North West have registered to become a blood stem cell donor during the pandemic, showing a gap in action, intention and awareness.

A blood stem cell donation from a genetically similar person can offer a second chance at life for those in need. Only one in three people with blood cancer (and in need of a transplant) will find a matching blood stem cell donor within their own family which means that two in three need to look outside of this and rely on an altruistic stranger to help give them more time with their family.

Among the biggest misconceptions, over two thirds of people think the donation process is invasive, over half believe the process is difficult and painful (62 per cent) and almost a third wrongly think the majority of donations involve a needle in the spine.

In reality around 90 per cent of all donations are made through a method called peripheral blood stem cell (PBSC), which is similar to the process of giving blood. In this method, blood is taken from one of the donor’s arms and a machine extracts the blood stem cells from it. The donor’s blood is then returned to them through their other arm. This is an outpatient procedure that is usually completed in 4-6 hours.

In just 10 per cent of cases, donations are made through bone marrow collection and contrary to what people think, bone marrow is not extracted from the spine, but from the pelvic bone using a special thin sterile needle. This is under general anaesthetic and some donors may experience pain afterwards. With over half the population (55%) thinking blood stem cell donation could endanger their health, they should feel motivated to take the first steps and register by knowing that blood stem cells regenerate within 2 weeks – so it’s a small price when it comes to potentially saving a life.

Louise Clague, the DKMS Donor Recruitment Manager, joined the fight against blood cancer and is on a mission to register as many potential blood stem cell donors as possible after her husband Andy died in December 2017, aged 46, following a two-year battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

The 50-year-old said: “Raising awareness of blood cancer and how people can become potential blood stem cell donors has partly been my way of dealing with grief and having something where you feel like you’re making a difference. I have a son and a daughter who are now 14 and 17 who have lost a dad. You don’t want other people to go through the same ordeal.

A lot of people think it will happen to somebody else and we were definitely in that camp, but then we are testament to that not being the case. Andy was as fit as the proverbial butcher’s dog, he used to cycle over 5,000 miles a year on his bike. We were referred to as the ‘fit family’ and we have no history of the condition in the family but it happened to us. So that is part of the message, it could be you and if it happened to you and your family, would you give your blood stem cells? I think a lot of people would and I think people haven’t signed up yet because they’ve never come across the condition. If they realised how straightforward it is to register.”

Jonathan Pearce, Chief Executive of DKMS UK, said: “Knowing that the reason a lot of people haven’t registered as a blood stem cell donor is due to misunderstanding is in some way positive. It means this Blood Cancer Awareness Month we have an opportunity to drive lifesaving action by simply shouting about how straightforward it is.

DKMS has joined forces with 20 other charities representing people affected by rare and less common cancers in a new fundraising campaign, 20 for 20. Launched this week, the 20-day challenge is open to everyone. Sign-up by visiting www.20for20.org.uk.

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