When Deena Alansky’s only sibling, her brother Rand, was told in 2003 that he would need a bone marrow transplant in order to have a shot at beating acute myeloid leukemia — a particularly aggressive type of blood and bone marrow cancer — the doctors said he had a good chance of finding a match because he was Caucasian.
But Rand was also an Ashkenazi Jew, and like many others of his ethnicity, finding a match ultimately proved to be impossible.
While siblings offer the best chance of a match, they only match about 25 percent of the time. So, when Deena was tested, and it was found that she was not a match for her brother, Rand had to seek a donor from outside his family. His next best shot was finding someone from his own ethnic group who had registered as a bone marrow donor.
But Jews are under-represented on bone marrow registries, which, in large part, is a consequence of millions being murdered in the Holocaust, and the destruction of many bloodlines.
Alansky lost her brother on Feb. 18, 2004, when he was just 45. Since then, she has made it her mission to register more people as potential bone marrow donors in an effort to save another family from going through the devastating loss that she and her parents faced 10 years ago.
“If more people were on the bone marrow registry, [maybe] we could have found a match for my brother,” Alansky said. “And if he’d found a match, he could have been alive today.”
On Tuesday, Feb. 18, to mark the 10th anniversary of Rand’s death, Alansky, for the first time, organized a drive to get more people registered.
“Finding a match is like finding a needle in a haystack,” she said. “So we have to put more needles in the haystack.”
The drive, which took place at the Fox & Hound, a sports bar on McKnight Road in the North Hills, ran from noon to 8 p.m., and Alansky followed the drive with “Party for the Cure,” a fundraiser to benefit Delete Blood Cancer and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
For the last 10 years, Alansky has been volunteering with Amy’s Army, an organization established in 2003 to help Amy Katz — a young Mt. Lebanon resident diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia — find a bone marrow match.
While Amy Katz, who is also an Ashkenazi Jew, still has not found a match, she remains in medical remission, thanks to a regimen of oral chemotherapy. She is currently a senior at Penn State and is doing well, said her mother Lisa Katz, who volunteered Tuesday to help Alansky with her drive in the North Hills.
“She’s helped us out so many times,” Lisa Katz said of Alansky. “Everything she’s about shouts how much she wants to help. She just wants to make sure people are aware.”
Awareness is key, Alansky said, noting that many people just don’t realize how under-represented certain ethnic groups are on the registry.
Registering as a potential bone marrow donor simply involves a swab of the cheek. At her drive, which she coordinated through Delete Blood Cancer, registration was free to anyone in good health between the ages of 18 and 55. Alansky offered to pay the $100 registration fee for older adults in the area, eligible to register through age 60 through another organization called Be the Match.
Alansky acknowledged that a bone marrow drive in the middle of February on a weekday might not draw a huge crowd, but nonetheless, she knew it had to take place on the 18th.
“The 10th anniversary of my brother’s death inspired me,” she said. “It had to be on the exact day. The day he lost his life. I want to save some lives.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Want to help?
Anyone who missed the drive, but is interested in registering as a potential bone marrow donor can go to www.deletebloodcancer.org. The cheek swab testing kit will be mailed to your home.
Alansky also is raising money online on behalf of Delete Blood Cancer and has created a personal fundraising page: www.firstgiving.com/fundraiser/deenasfriends4acure/
Donations are tax deductible, and 100 percent of the money raised will pay for adding new donors to the National Marrow Registry.