Leukemia patient calls on visible minorities to donate stem cells

Mai Duong, a 34-year-old leukemia patient, is fighting for her young life from her hospital room at Maisonneuve-Rosemont Hospital. She has been unsuccessful in finding a good donor match because she is Vietnamese.

Only 19% of Héma-Québec bone marrow donors are non-white

Mai Duong is a leukemia patient in need of a stem cell transplant. She is appealing to Vietnamese people to sign up to the Quebec bone marrow registry. (Courtesy of Mai Duong)

Mai Duong is fighting for her young life from her hospital room at Maisonneuve-Rosemont Hospital.

The 34-year-old woman is there for her second stretch is as many years. Her case of acute leukemia, first diagnosed in January 2013, relapsed in May of this year — just 10 months after being given a clean bill of health from her doctor.

If she had a bone marrow or umbilical cord stem cell transplant, her likelihood of survival would increase significantly. But she is Vietnamese, and that means her chances of finding a compatible donor are rarer than for most people.

That’s because only 19 per cent of bone marrow donors in Quebec are non-white. On top of that, just 4.7 per cent of blood donors in Quebec are of visible minorities.

Just one per cent of the bone marrow registry is composed of Vietnamese people.

Duong told CBC Daybreak about her year-and-a-half struggle with leukemia on Friday.

Diagnosed while pregnant

It began at the start of 2013, when she was 15 weeks pregnant with her second child. She went in for routine pregnancy blood tests but came back with a diagnosis of acute leukemia.

She had to have an abortion in order to start intensive chemotherapy treatments right away. Placed in an isolation chamber for six weeks, Duong was unable to see her four-year-old daughter, Alice.

One month later, she returned home and continued chemotherapy treatments. She eventually went into total remission.

Her relapse was discovered in May in a routine blood test.

Few visible minorities among Quebec donors

A spokeswoman for Quebec’s blood and stem cell bank Héma-Québec said the organization is working hard to reach out to cultural communities, who constitute a low percentage of the 47,000 Quebecers currently registered on the stem cell registry.

Vietnamese people make up just one per cent of the Quebec bone marrow registry; that percentage is about the same on the international registry as well, said Laurent Paul Ménard of Héma-Québec media relations.

He said there is no registry at all in Vietnam.

“It is very, very difficult to find a perfectly compatible match for patients of minorities. That’s why we’re trying to reach out to communities, such as the Vietnamese community, to register to our registry. Once the donors are subscribed to our registry, then they are available to any patient at the international level that are in need of a bone marrow transplant,” Suzie Joron told CBC Daybreak host Sonali Karnick.

Duong said her brother, who had a 30 per cent chance of matching, was not a match.

And so she is waiting for a compatible Vietnamese donor to come forward and get tested. 

How to donate

Joron of Héma-Québec said people who want to donate umbilical cord stem cells or bone marrow to their bank can register online to receive a DNA swab test in the mail or call 514-832-5000.

Duong said it’s important for people from all visible minorities and cultural communities to donate blood, stem cells and bone marrow.

“We could be saving lives. If it’s not my life, it’s going to be somebody else’s,” she told CBC Daybreak.

She added that if a Vietnamese person wanted to donate specifically to her, all they had to do was give Héma-Québec her name.

“I believe in humanity, so I believe that we’re going to find a match. I’m hopeful,” Duong said.