How your stem cells could save a life

In the large majority of cases, stem cell donation is similar to blood donation. (CBC News - image credit)
In the large majority of cases, stem cell donation is similar to blood donation. (CBC News - image credit)

Canadian Blood Services is targeting Prince Edward Islanders between the ages of 17 and 35 in a search for potential stem cell donors.

A special drive is being held at the UPEI Murphy Student Centre Wednesday and Thursday.

"When a patient is suggested to go through a stem cell transplant, this is basically their last chance of survival," said Deborah MacGillivray, the community development manager for Canadian Blood Services in Nova Scotia and P.E.I.

"They have already gone through the chemotherapy, radiation, other treatments that were possible, and the stem cell is their last chance."

No match in Canada for Islander

There are currently about 1,000 Canadians trying to find a match for a stem cell transplant

It's a process that 42-year-old Jason Chiasson of Vernon Bridge is all too familiar with. For him it started with a constant fatigue he couldn't explain. He discovered he had leukemia, and without a stem cell transplant he would die.

"My donor ended up being from overseas," said Chaisson.

"They couldn't find a match here in Canada."

That situation, and in particular where Chaisson could not find a match within his family, is not as unusual as one might expect, said MacGillivray. Only about one in four patients can find a matching family member.

Misconceptions about what it takes

Chaisson thinks his need to look abroad to find a match reflects some reluctance among Canadians to register, but he said probably a bigger concern is a lack of awareness.

"We do need to have a push," said MacGillivray.

Part of that push is dispelling misconceptions about the process, she said.

The registration process is easy, she said. You answer a few questions, and then you take four swabs from the inside of your cheek. Those swabs are analyzed and catalogued, and then that information made available to oncologists looking for matches for their patients.

Should you be a match for someone, 90 per cent of the time the donation procedure is similar to giving blood, MacGillivray said. In a small percentage of cases, she said, day surgery may be required for a donation.

Chaisson said it is hard to overstate how much of a difference donating can make.

"It's definitely given me more of an appreciation for just how fragile life itself is," he said.

Anyone who can't make it to the event at UPEI can apply for a mail-in registration kit from the Canadian Blood Services web site.