Recently, I signed up to the Anthony Nolan register.
Having the opportunity to donate stem cells to someone with greater need of them is something which I’ve been thinking about a lot in recent years.
I’ll admit, I’ve been meaning to sign up for a while but with various other plans and commitments getting in the way, I’ve only just gotten round to it.
And with the register in desperate need of new donors – in particular young men – it seems others have the same relaxed attitude I had. But this needs to change. And fast.
For me personally, there was a particular reason I wanted to sign up to the register. Of course, I wanted to be able to help save someone and increase the chances of a person receiving a second chance at life.
But I’ve come to learn firsthand just how vital stem cell donation is and how important it is for healthy people like me to donate whenever they can.
My dad was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer arising from plasma cells, in 2011 and was told from the start that the best course of treatment was a stem cell transplant.
Shortly after receiving his diagnosis, he underwent chemotherapy and radiation but with the cancer already in his spine it was decided he would need a stem cell transplant to have the best chance of remission.
Despite only 25 per cent of people finding a matching donor in their family, luckily for my dad, his brother (and sister) were a match and it was decided my uncle would be his donor. Much to my auntie’s dismay, who wanted to do everything possible to help him.
Eight years later, my dad’s now in remission but I know just how different this story could have been if his siblings weren’t a match due to the lack of suitable donors on the register. And my uncle? He was back home in no time and you can see how happy he is knowing he was able to play such a pivotal role in saving his brother’s life.
Anthony Nolan use their register to match individuals willing to donate their stem cells or bone marrow to those who desperately need life-saving transplants.
With one person getting diagnosed with blood cancer every 14 minutes in the UK, the need for stem cell donors continues to grow – and yet the number of those signing up doesn’t.
Currently, only two per cent of people in the UK are registered as stem cell donors – a number which is seriously lacking compared to other countries. And a number which needs to change if we stand any chance of saving the lives of those with blood cancer.
So why aren’t more people signing up?
It could be because there are various myths which surround the whole donation process, including the most popular one which claims donating bone marrow is excruciatingly painful.
In truth, for 90 per cent of people, donating is now very similar to giving blood and is a simple, painless process. For the other 10 per cent who give their bone marrow, general anesthetic will be used so no pain is felt during the procedure.
It’s likely you’ll feel a bit tired and bruised for a little while afterwards if you are part of the 10 per cent, and you may need to take a few days off work. But that’s all – and you could save a life in doing so.
It doesn’t help that popular culture seems to reinforce these myths either; in particular, Seven Pounds, in which Will Smith’s character Tim Thomas donates his bone marrow and appears to be in agony throughout. There’s no denying scenes like this have a detrimental impact; I remember watching it and physically cringing at how much pain he was in.
Over the past few years, the bone marrow transplant process has improved drastically so pain isn’t a factor anymore. But still, misconceptions abound with many people being put off from signing up to the register altogether.
Such myths prevent masses of people signing up to the register, forcing the charity to overcome needless hurdles and challenges which have all stemmed from rumours and untruths about the donation process.
Which is why Sonny Malhotra, 31, decided to share his experience as a stem cell donor to encourage other people to sign up, describing the whole process as an ‘absolute breeze’.
Speaking to UNILAD, the 31-year-old expressed how, as a mixed race man, he always knew how important it was to get on the donor list. Anthony Nolan ‘urgently need’ people from black, Asian, and other minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds as they are underrepresented on the register.
Sonny actually signed up to the register more than 10 years ago when he was still at school, but it wasn’t until May last year that he received an email telling him he was a potential match for someone in need.
The 31-year-old, who is a photographer and videographer, then had another test to confirm he was a definite match. He was, and he was good to go.
Sonny told UNILAD:
It’s a bizarre feeling to get that email and then have it confirmed with a test; there’s an odd sense of responsibility mixed with ecstatic elation knowing that you could be instrumental in saving someone’s life.
The photographer live-tweeted the donation process to offer complete transparency about it, in the hope that other people would see it really wasn’t as bad as it’s believed to be.
As part of the process, for four days prior to the donation Sonny received small injections to stimulate his bones’ stem cell production. These excess cells would then be removed on the day of the donation.
Final injections done! Paracetamol for the occasional ache, finish today's video edit, watch England continue to ensure It's Coming Home and then sleep in preparation for tomorrow's donation. pic.twitter.com/gd5Rn7NiXg
— Sonny Malhotra (@PhotoSonny) July 11, 2018
— Sonny Malhotra (@PhotoSonny) July 12, 2018
And then it was over. Sonny described the process as ‘much less physically demanding than expected’ and even went home to walk his pet pooch the same day he donated.
The 31-year-old said:
My recovery time was almost instant; I was a little bit tired for a few days but that was it; I went on a stag-do two days after donating and, aside from using fatigue as a weak excuse not to have to learn the dance to All The Single Ladies whilst wearing a leotard, was absolutely fine.
This fear of what donation used to be seems to be one of the biggest and absolutely needless hurdles that Anthony Nolan face when looking for potential new matches.
Whenever anyone hears about me having donated I’m invariably faced with their response of ‘Oooh, but doesn’t that hurt a lot?’ and when the answer from me is an emphatic ‘No’ they respond with ‘Well, I should get on the register’.
Got more than enough energy in me to take this little critter out for a walk. PBSC donation was MUCH less physically demanding than I was expecting. pic.twitter.com/JnSpAIoEoA
— Sonny Malhotra (@PhotoSonny) July 12, 2018
Just a few months after his donation, Sonny received a letter from Anthony Nolan thanking him for being a donor and to let him know the recipient of his stem cells was ‘alive and doing well’.
The photographer and videographer admitted he felt ‘some degree of trepidation’ when opening the letter, as he’d asked to be informed of his recipient’s response to the transplant – good or bad.
However, when he learnt the transplant had been a success he said he felt ‘so so so happy’ and even wrote his own (anonymous) letter to his recipient in return.
This kind of transparency is exactly what we need going forward if we’re ever going to break past the misconceptions and myths that surround stem cell donation and encourage others to join the register.
Alex Cupit, Online Recruitment Lead at Anthony Nolan, emphasised how important it is to address the need for more people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds on the stem cell register.
He also reiterated that if you’re a young man between the age of 16 and 30, it’s especially important to consider signing up as they make up more than 50 per cent of all stem cell donations – but only make up 16 per cent of the register.
The Recruitment Lead continued:
Our Anthony Nolan donors really are heroes. Donating stem cells is a straightforward process, but to the patient, it is often their only hope of survival.
Each day, five people will start their search for a matching stranger to give them a second chance of life. Every single person who joins the register has the potential to give hope to someone in desperate need of a lifesaving stem cell transplant.
Obviously, everyone’s experience of donating is slightly different but countless donors such as Sonny have only positive things to say about the process. And if a tiny bit of discomfort or inconvenience means you get to give someone a second chance at life, I think it’s 100 per cent worth it.
So if you’re anything like me and have been meaning to sign up to the register but haven’t for one reason or another, why not do it now? It might just save someone’s life.
You can sign up to the Anthony Nolan register here.
If you’ve been affected by any of these issues, and want to speak to someone in confidence contact Macmillan’s Cancer Support Line on 0808 808 00 00 (Monday – Friday, 9am – 8pm).
If you have a story you want to tell send it to UNILAD via [email protected]
A Broadcast Journalism Masters graduate who went on to achieve an NCTJ level 3 Diploma in Journalism, Lucy has done stints at ITV, BBC Inside Out and Key 103. While working as a journalist for UNILAD, Lucy has reported on breaking news stories while also writing features about mental health, cervical screening awareness, and Little Mix (who she is unapologetically obsessed with).