Twenty-two year old May Brown from Weymouth was about to start a law and criminology course at Liverpool University when she was diagnosed with leukaemia. She has been told that her best hope of survival is a stem cell transplant, which will replace her damaged immune system with healthy cells.
However, due to a shortage of black donors, the mother-of-one knows the odds are against her.
‘I feel like there isn’t much awareness of blood donation, organ donation and stem cell donation, especially among the black community,’ said May, originally from Nigeria. ‘Before I came to the UK I had never heard of it. I want more people to know they can help.’
While donors don’t need to be of an identical ethnic background to be a match, it’s highly likely that people will find their match from someone with a similar ethnic background to themselves. Currently the pool of donors from ethnic minority backgrounds is small: while 60% of white northern Europeans will find the best possible match, this drops dramatically to around 20% for people from black, Asian or ethnic minority backgrounds.
May’s story echoes that of mixed race student Lara Casalotti, who this week found a ‘needle in a haystack’ donor following a global social media campaign. Lara had a message of support for May: ‘I’m wishing with all my heart that May will find her donor soon. I hope the momentum of the Match4Lara campaign will continue to see many more black, Asian and ethnic minority donors sign up. I am so fortunate to have found a donor, and I wish May the joy of finding hers.’
May is worried about what will happen to her daughter Selina, two, if a suitable donor is not found. She said, ‘I don’t know what the future holds for me if I don’t get that transplant. I’m scared that I might not see my little girl grow up. It was her birthday on Christmas Day and I missed it because I was in hospital, I couldn’t even Skype her. Please help me to stay alive and to take care of my child.’
Ann O’Leary, head of register development at blood cancer charity Anthony Nolan, said: ‘It’s vital that we raise awareness of stem cell donation among black communities to make sure that people from any background find the best possible match. Growing and diversifying the bone marrow register will mean that people like May can have a second chance at life.’
Tragically, a suitable donor was found for May late last year but she found out shortly before the scheduled transplant that the person was unable to donate. Instead, she spent Christmas and her daughter’s second birthday in hospital undergoing further chemotherapy.
Now, the search for a donor is back on and May wants to encourage people to join the Anthony Nolan stem cell register, which can be done by providing a saliva sample. In 90% of cases where a potential donor is found to be a match for someone in need of a transplant, stem cells are donated through a simple process similar to giving blood.
‘I want to do whatever it takes to help raise awareness of the stem cell register,’ said May. ‘Please sign up as a donor and save someone's life.’