Paul Francis, a Romford local, joined the Anthony Nolan bone marrow register at an African-Caribbean Leukaemia Trust (ACLT) registration drive in 2003 but last year he was called up to save a stranger’s life by donating his stem cells.
Stem cell (or bone marrow) transplants are vital in the treatment of leukaemia and other blood cancers – often they are someone’s last chance of survival. Watch Paul's video diaries to find out more about donating:
‘I spoke to Eddie Nestor from BBC Radio London and he told me about the lack of people of colour on the register and it was shocking,’ Paul explained.
‘I just thought I’ve got to sign up - it’s something that’s bigger than me. My nephew had leukaemia and things like that just act as a wake up call. When someone else needs help and all I have to do is give a bit of blood, it doesn’t seem like a big thing to me.’
Years after Paul signed up, he then got a call from Anthony Nolan, the UK’s bone marrow register, to say he was a match for a stranger.
‘I have to admit when I first got the call I was nervous. But when I found out a bit more about it it’s just like having an extended blood donation.’
Nine times out of ten, people donate their stem cells in a simple process called Peripheral Blood Stem Cell Collection, which takes about 4 hours and is similar to giving blood.
‘I wasn’t scared of donating but I do have a big fear of needles. But that fear pales into insignificance compared to what the end impact of donating could be. And when I was having my tests I felt absolutely nothing when the needles went in. By the last day I even challenged myself to look at it going in my arm and I did it!’
Currently, because there aren’t enough African Caribbean people like Paul on the Anthony Nolan register, it means that if you’re African Caribbean and in need of a bone marrow transplant, you have a less than a 20% chance of finding the best possible, lifesaving match.
‘The need for African-Caribbean people to join the register is clear: one of my nurses taking my injections in the lead up to the donation told me in 7 years I was first black person she had seen to go on to donate, which is alarming.’
'Would I do this again if I was asked? In a heartbeat'
Paul is now supporting a campaign by Anthony Nolan and the African Caribbean Leukaemia Trust (ACLT) called ‘Being African-Caribbean’, which aims to increase the numbers of African-Caribbean donors on the bone marrow register.
‘For anyone out there who is scared or worried that there’s this big needle going into your back – it’s absolutely nothing like that at all. Would I do this again, if I was asked? In a heartbeat.’
‘We cannot blame anyone but ourselves for this statistic. What are we afraid of? It is so simple to do. Yes, I was aching a little, yes, I was tired, but so what? If you went to a club or gym you would feel exactly the same.’
‘You never know who it could affect. I haven’t done it because a family member was sick, I did it because someone, somewhere was sick. So sometimes that call could come closer to home to you. Don’t wait for that to happen.’
Ann O’Leary, Head of Register Development at Anthony Nolan says, ‘We need more selfless strangers like Paul to step forward as donors so that we can find matches for people in need of a transplant, especially people from African-Caribbean and other black and minority ethnic communities as they are underrepresented on the register.
‘What many people don’t realise is just how simple it is to be a donor. Registering simply involves providing a saliva sample.’
'The answer to this heart-breaking situation is in our own communities'
Beverley De-Gale, Co-Founder at ACLT says, ‘Like so many other families, we faced an agonising wait to find a matching donor for our son Daniel; the odds were stacked against us, as we were told that there were only 550 black people on the Anthony Nolan register at that time, despite years of campaigning. At times we felt helpless, but we realised we could make a huge difference for Daniel and others like him if we addressed the lack of awareness head-on, so we set up the ACLT.
The answer to this heart-breaking situation was in our own communities – and they truly did us, and Daniel, proud.’
‘Now we need the next generation of young African-Caribbean people to follow this example and sign up to the Anthony Nolan register today. If you’re 16 to 30, you could give people facing blood cancer future and end the inequality that black people face when searching for a donor.’
To join the register you must be between 16 and 30, and you will remain on the register until you are 60.
For more information about the ‘Being African-Caribbean’ campaign and to join the Anthony Nolan register go to www.anthonynolan.org/africancaribbean. For more information about ACLT, go to www.aclt.org.