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Drastic decline in marrow donor registrations leave blood cancer patients searching for matches

September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, and many pediatric patients fighting blood cancers are facing a new uncertainty because of the COVID-19 pandemic — fewer people are signing up to be lifesaving marrow or stem cell donors.

The South Texas Blood & Tissue Center (STBTC) is encouraging individuals age 18 to 44 and in general good health to sign up for the national marrow registry, Be The Match, to support children fighting cancer and searching for their matching donor.

“Because of the pandemic, registrations to the Be The Match Registry have drastically decreased,” said Samuel Hillhouse, Be The Match program administrator at STBTC. “We have had 69 registrations in September this year, compared to 639 in the same month last year. This leaves many patients who have no matches on the registry with little hope of receiving a transplant.”

For patients like Kane Goodwin, a marrow transplant is the difference between life and death.

Kane was only 4 years old when his parents took him to the emergency room for unusual bruises in 2017. He had dangerously low platelet levels and required blood and platelet transfusions immediately.

Their emergency room visit turned into a 93-day hospital stay as Kane fought aplastic anemia, a rare blood disorder.

Like patients fighting blood cancers or blood diseases, Kane’s best hope for a cure was a matching marrow donor—someone who has the same genetic tissue typing of the immune system.

While many patients struggle to find the match they need, Kane thankfully found his donor quickly on the Be The Match Registry.

In the weeks leading up to his lifesaving transplant, Kane also required blood every few days. Patients who receive a marrow transplant can use up to 140 units of blood and platelets.

“When he needed it, it was life or death,” his mother Kate said. “I think about it all the time. What if he needed blood and they didn’t have it? We were really lucky that blood was there in that situation.”

Fortunately for Kane’s family, there was blood available when he needed it, thanks to donors with the STBTC, a subsidiary of BioBridge Global.

However, the loss of blood drives during the pandemic, which in a typical year provide up to 70% of all donations, means less blood is available for cancer patients like Kane.

“Blood transfusions are a critical part of fighting cancer, and it’s absolutely necessary to have blood readily available for patients like Kane,” said Dr. Samantha Gomez Ngamsuntikul, Associated Medical Director with STBTC.

Thanks to blood donors and his marrow donor, Kane survived aplastic anemia and is now a healthy 6-year-old. His family continues to raise awareness for the thousands of children who still need a marrow or stem cell transplant to fight their blood cancer or blood disease.

To become a potential marrow donor, join the registry by texting KANE to 61474. The community can also support cancer patients by donating blood at an STBTC donor room. Donations are by appointment only and can be scheduled at SouthTexasBlood.org/Give.