Alberta man finds stem-cell donor, will undergo potentially life-saving transplant

After months of searching, an Alberta man battling blood cancer has found the stem cell donor who could save his life.

Bille Nguyen, 25, was diagnosed with an aggressive and rare form of blood cancer in January

Susan Nguyen has been confirmed as a donor match for her brother Bille Nguyen, who needs a stem-cell transplant. (Supplied by Susan Nguyen)

After months of searching, an Alberta man battling blood cancer has found the stem-cell donor who could save his life. 

Bille Nguyen, 25, was diagnosed in January and learned at the end of April that chemotherapy was not working.

The only option for the Edmonton man was to find a compatible stem-cell donor by the end of June — any later and he could be too sick for the transplant. 

"Everybody was really scared," Nguyen told CBC News on Tuesday.

His three older sisters sprang into action, organizing swab events across the country to register people as potential matches. In the end, it was one of them who turned out to be compatible. 

Susan Nguyen, 35, will have stem cells removed from her blood on July 26. The following day, her brother will receive them. 

"It was just the craziest feeling ever," said Susan, struggling Tuesday morning to describe her reaction to learning that she could save her brother's life. "I'd been searching like crazy for this person, and all this time they were under my nose."

The search

When the family learned that a stem-cell transplant offered the best chance for survival, they were also told there was only a 25-per-cent chance of a sibling match. 

Complicating matters was the fact that compatible donors usually come from the same ethnic background, and the pool of potential people of Asian descent, particularly from Chinese or Vietnamese parents, was even smaller. 

"That just bothered me so much, that not only our chance is so low, but those other people out there," Susan said of why the family tried to recruit donors. 

People register to become stem-cell donors at a clinic run by the Nguyen sisters. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

"We don't know if it's going to work, because his disease is so rare," Susan said. "But at least it gives us a chance, another treatment. They didn't really have anything else up their sleeves for him."

According to Canadian Blood Services' One Match database, which tracks stem-cell donors and transplants, there are other people still waiting. 

Susan added up the number of people of Asian descent: 181. She and her sisters will continue to run swab events for them, and for all of those without matches. 

They have events planned in Toronto and Vancouver in coming weeks, and will have another in Edmonton on Aug. 25. 

"The problem is still out there, and we got lucky that I was his match," Susan said. "It's not always like that."

'Hopefully, it's going to save my life'

Nguyen has been staying strong mentally and physically, despite the lumps that continue to appear on his body, Susan said. 

"I was so surprised when he was being interviewed and he said there's no point in him crying and being depressed, because it's just going to depress us and make our family hurt and be sad," his sister said. "He just does it for us.

Susan, Shelly and Tu Nguyen have been running swab events around the country to recruit more stem-cell donors. (Supplied by Susan Nguyen)

"I always hear people say, I fought cancer or I survived cancer, and I never really think anything of it," she said. "It's not until you experience it and see it yourself: my brother really fought this."

Nguyen said his sisters have been equally strong. He and Susan both have to undergo extensive testing before the surgery. 

"Hopefully, it's going to save my life," he said of the stem-cell transplant. "I'm not sure how I'm going to repay her, ever." 

roberta.bell@cbc.ca

@roberta__bell