News and Tribune

Clark County

April 6, 2014

PAYING IT FORWARD: Jeffersonville cancer survivor advocates for bone marrow donations

Leukemia survivor Phil Meeks volunteers at the Norton Cancer Clinic

JEFFERSONVILLE —  When Phil Meeks went to the doctor for shortness of breath and a burning in his legs, he expected nothing more than a routine diagnosis.

“I was a smoker, so I thought, it’s probably my smoking,” said Meeks, a 47-year-old Jeffersonville resident.

So it was quite a shock when his doctor came back with alarming blood test results and a prognosis that he would be dead in 30 days if he didn’t start chemotherapy treatments immediately.

“I was blown away,” said Meeks, whose doctor also delivered a diagnosis of acute myloid leukemia in August 2012.

Because his form of cancer was so aggressive, Meeks needed a bone marrow transplant to have a chance of long-term survival. However, his chance of finding a match was only 20 percent because he is African-American with multiracial genes — minorities have a harder time finding matches due to the lower number of people on the bone marrow registry.

“I figured my days were over,” he said.

Meeks was met with another shock about three months later. Doctors had found not one, but three bone marrow matches.

“[The nurse] said, ‘That’s just unheard of,’” Meeks said. “I was blessed immensely.”

But not everyone is so fortunate, he said.

That’s why Meeks — now cancer-free — volunteers for Be The Match, a nonprofit organization that works to boost bone marrow registry numbers for those suffering from blood cancers.

The  largest and most diverse bone marrow registry in the world, Be The Match registry has 11 million potential donors in its database.

“And it’s still not even nearly enough,” he said.

To rack up these numbers, and to help others who need bone marrow transplants, Meeks helps organize events to sign people up for the registry.

Upcoming Be the Match events in the area include the University Run Event from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the George J Howe Red Barn on the University of Louisville’s campus tomorrow and at Northside Christian Church’s Serve Day in New Albany April 26 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and April 27 from 1:30 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Anyone interested in joining the registry who can’t attend these or other events can receive an at-home donor kit in the mail via BeTheMatch.org.

Dr. Don Stevens, Meeks’ oncologist who treated him at Norton Cancer Institute in Louisville, said the process isn’t as difficult as some might think.

“Donating stem cells has become easier and easier,” Stevens said.

Signing up only requires filling out an application, swabbing the inside of the cheek and dropping both in the mail.

“The whole process takes about 10 minutes,” Meeks said.

If someone is called back as a match, the most common process for donating is similar to giving blood: stem cells are separated from the blood and put back into the donor’s veins.

Sometimes, donors have their marrow aspirated, or removed directly from the bone, if necessary, which is about 25 percent of the time.

But Meeks said even this is easy — donors are sedated and only experience a little bit of soreness afterward.

“You’re donating something that you’re going to eventually regrow,” Stevens said. “It’s not like giving someone a kidney.”

Registry sign-ups give hope to those with blood cancer and in need of a transplant — such as 15-year-old New Albany resident Nicholaus VanArsdale, whose leukemia has returned after six years of remission.

VanArsdale’s mother, Melinda, said despite recent blood counts coming back as normal, she was persistent in taking Nicholaus to the doctor for puzzling symptoms he experienced around the holidays last year.

“Moms just kind of know things,” Melinda said. “I had a sense of something not quite right.”

Nicholaus’ seemingly harmless symptoms — a mysterious bruise on his left leg, pain in his right wrist and fingers — ended up being early signs that the cancer that nearly killed him when he was 4 years old had returned.

Melinda said the chances of that happening were about one in one million.

But she has a different outlook on this statistic.

“He is a one in a million guy,” she said. “...He is just a very unique and special kid. He said that ‘God healed me once, and he will do it again. I got this.’”

Because the aggressive form of cancer has returned after such a long period of remission, a bone marrow transplant is necessary.

Although signing up for the registry in honor of a cancer patient places a donor in the entire pool, not just a pool for that patient, Melinda encourages anyone who can sign up to do so.

“There are a lot of Nicholaus’s out there,” she said. “... It is so important because it saves lives like Phil’s, like Nicholaus’, like other cancer patients,” she said.

Stevens said that campaigns to increase the number of bone marrow donors in recent years has made a difference, especially for minorities.

“African-Americans are not represented in the marrow registry pool to the same percentage,” he said.

Some of the reasons for this disparity include a lack of awareness, a mistrust of the medical system and genetic diversity, according to BlackBoneMarrow.com.

Because human tissue has racial differences, it can be more difficult to find a match for a patient that has a varied or unique racial genetic makeup.

“The ideal thing is to have an identical twin that gives you spare parts,” Stevens said of finding a good bone marrow match.

The likelihood of finding a match these days is relatively high, but the key is finding the best match, he said.

“We really want as close as possible a match so that we can decrease the risk of the transplant,” Stevens said. The most dangerous outcome from a bad match is graph-versus-host disease, where new marrow rejects its new body, which can often end in death.

“The bigger the pool, the more likely it is we’re going to find the best donor for our patients,” Stevens said. “And we need everybody to jump in the pool.”

Now that Meeks is free of cancer, he volunteers at the Norton Cancer Clinic and spreads the word about the simple yet powerful act of donating bone marrow.

“I’m trying to pay it forward,” he said. “There’s a lot of problems in this world today, and this is something that can make a direct change — and you can save a person’s life.”

 

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