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'I signed up to be stem-cell donor and this is why I think you should do the same'

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The law around organ donation is changing in England. From spring 2020, all adults will be considered an organ donor when they die, unless they record a decision not to donate or are in one of the excluded groups.

According to statistics published by the NHS UK, currently 6,077 patients in the UK are waiting for an organ transplant. While this change in legislation can be seen as a significant success for this campaign and the future of organ donation, it does bring up the question of other forms of donation that could also save peoples lives that do not fall under this new "opt-out" system; one such form being stem cell donation.

According to the Anthony Nolan foundation, every 14 minutes someone is diagnosed with blood cancer and over 2,000 people in the UK are in need of bone marrow or stem cell transplants every year. Out of those in need, 75% will not find a matching donor within their families.

The shocking truth is that in spite of this only 2% of people in the UK are registered as stem cell donors. Certain demographic groups are being urged to sign up to the register, more specifically men between aged 16-30 and people from BAME backgrounds, as they are significantly underrepresented.

I spoke with Daniel Slattery, a 29 year-old restaurant manager from Glasgow, whose own experiences inspired me to join the register. We spoke about his experience joining the register and donating stem cells through the Anthony Nolan foundation. Daniel joined and donated after his cousin John Aitken was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins lymphoma at 23 years of age, whilst studying maths and statistics at the University of Glasgow.

Image Courtesy of Daniel Slattery

"When it came towards the end, I think the last sort of six months, the doctors had said we could try a stem cell transplant between a donor and John," Daniel says. "The process works by contacting the immediate family first, and once they have done that they extend it to extended family.

"So we all went through it, even my little sister - and she was only 16 or 17 at the time - and unforuntately, none of us was a match. After there were no matches he went on the national register run by Anthony Nolan, and unfortunately there were no matches."

Daniel continues: "At the time they asked us to be donors I asked: 'How can I get involved in this?' because I wasn't a match for John, I still wanted to help somebody else. They gave me the link and I did what everybody else has done: filled out the registration process, did the spit test, and that was me on the register."

"All I can say is how easy it is. Once you are on there, you can almost forget about it. They'll send you periodical updates and say 'This is what's happening in the charity' or 'Do you want to take part in a fundraiser?' but you don't have to do any of that. You just have to be there and (you) might never even get called, or you might be like me and get called after six months."

A common fear associated with stem cell extraction is the pain, an idea supported by movies like My Sister's Keeper triggering images of huge needles and screamingly painful bone marrow extraction. However, 90% of donations actually take place via peripheral bloos stem cell (PBSC) collection. This is a procedure similar to giving blood. It takes around five hours and a simple outpatient procedure.

Daniel confirmed this when speaking about his time donating.

"They are absolutely supportive throughout the process," he says. "They sent a nurse to the house. I think it was three days before my actual donation day. They gave me injections that increase the production of bone marrow in your body so much so that your bones cannot contain it and bone marrow secretes out your bones into your bloodstream.

"You do feel kind of a bit creaky, but I was still working at the time and only took time off to fly to London. On the day before the donation, they fly you down, they get you checked into the hospital and they give you your final injection. Then you come in the following day for your donation.

"I was there giving my first donation, but there were others - about six of us, and we were all in together. There were people there that were doing it the second or possibly third time.

"It's completely non-intrusive. Basically, they take blood out of one arm and calibrate it through a machine until the stem cells separate, and they take that off and the rest of the blood goes back into you. It takes no time at all. It wasn't painful. It wasn't uncomfortable. You're well checked up on. I just sat and watched Netflix. It was great!"

Whether people should be on stem cell donor register through the "opt-out" model is something which is up for debate. However, when you look at the impact stem donation has it is hard to see why it has not been included in the new legislation.

"I do not see why people wouldn't want to do it," Daniel says. "Fair enough, everyone's entitled to do what they want with their own body. I would just encourage people to do it. The only time you will get asked to do something is when you can potentially save somebody's life."

To join the register, you must be ageed between 16 and 30, weigh more than 7st 12lbs (50kgs) and be in general good health. Anthony Nolan's research confirms that the use of donors under 30 is associated with a trend towards better survival rates, meaning most students would be ideal candidates for donation.

So why should you join? Ultimately because you can make a difference and potentially save someone's life. Cancer does not discriminate - it can affect you or one of your student peers, your friends or your family.

To found out more about the Anthony Nolan foundation and how to sign up for the register you can visit their official page: https://www.anthonynolan.org/

*All facts were correct at the time of writing.

Lead Image Courtesy of Daniel Slattery




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