There are concerns a dramatic shortage of stem cell and bone marrow donors from non-Caucasian ethnic groups is putting lives in jeopardy.

Experts are trying to fix the problem by tackling the biggest issue — lack of awareness.

For Angela Yee-Hamshaw, news of her sister's leukemia diagnosis was devastating.  

Doctors could not find a bone marrow match in the family for 37-year-old Audrey Popowich, so as chemotherapy began so did the search for a donor.

Because of her Chinese heritage, Popowich was warned that finding a match could prove extremely difficult.

In the end, Popowich was too sick for a bone marrow donation. She died in April.

"It can be very difficult. Within specific ethnic groups, we do struggle to find donors," said Cassandra DeLuca, a co-ordinator with Canadian Blood Services.

About 75 per cent of the 330,000 registered Canadian donors are Caucasian. Chinese Canadians make up about six per cent, while South Asian donors account for less than three per cent of the supply.


The vast majority of bone marrow and stem cell donors are Caucasian. (Canadian Blood Services)

Targeting various cultural events

"Within certain communities there is more awareness than others," DeLuca said.

The huge gap is frustrating, said Dr. Mona Shafey, who works at the Alberta Bone Marrow Transplant program.

"They're facing life and death here," she said.

"They're left with very few options, usually experimental therapies if they're lucky, but ultimately they die because they can't get the treatment they need."

The Canadian Blood Services’ One Match Stem Cell and Marrow Network program is now targeting various cultural events in a bid to recruit a more diverse range of donors.

Yee-Hamshaw said she hopes it works for the sake of others.

Her family is trying to raise awareness so more people will volunteer to save a life.

"Ultimately we couldn't help Audrey, but if her story could help someone else I think she would've felt good about that," Yee-Hamshaw said.