Yale Law School students gathered Monday for a bone marrow drive in support of a recent graduate — Nigeria’s first Winter Olympian hopeful — who has been diagnosed with aggressive cancer.
In cooperation with Be The Match Registry, an organization that raises funds to help patients in need of a bone marrow or umbilical cord blood transplant, members of the Yale Black Law Students Association signed up about 90 people to the nationwide registry — a list of potential donors and their relevant medical information. After alumnus Seun Adebiyi LAW ’09 was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year, he decided he wanted to advocate for bone marrow donation, though the drive was not specifically intended to find a donor for him. While a few students who attended the registration said they were concerned about the pain of the bone marrow extraction procedure, most said the discomfort would be worth the lives it saved.
“Once you realize the potential difference this could make in a person’s life, I think any pain won’t really matter,” Anjali Srinivasan LAW ’11 said.
Adebiyi, who now works for Goldman Sachs, found out in June that he had developed two extremely aggressive forms of cancer: stem cell leukemia, which is early-stage cancer of the blood, and lymphoblastic lymphoma, a cancer of white blood cells. Recognizing the difficulty of locating an appropriate bone marrow donor, Adebiyi decided to enlist his friends at the Law School to run a registration drive.
Adebiyi’s goal, he said, is to sign up 10,000 people to the registry. Eventually, he hopes to start the first bone marrow registry in Nigeria, where he was born.
His friend, Tafari Lumumba LAW ’11, the president of the Yale Black Law Students Association, said he heard about Adebiyi’s idea in late July and was immediately enthusiastic. Lumumba said he was inspired not only by their friendship, but also by Adebiyi’s personal achievements.
In addition to his law degree, Adebiyi has a pilot’s license and aims to be the first person to represent Nigeria at the Winter Olympic Games, Lumumba said.
“His drive, his personal will and love of life is always so motivational to us that it only felt appropriate that we step up for him,” Lumumba said.
Adebiyi, who left the hospital Monday after seven weeks of chemotherapy, first noticed symptoms of the cancer — swollen lymph nodes — this January, but said doctors at University Health Services thought it was simply an effect of his strenuous athletic regimen. He then visited an oncologist at Yale-New Haven Hospital, who discovered the lymphoma. The diagnosis of stem cell leukemia came several weeks later, after Adebiyi sought second and third opinions from private hospitals in Utah and New York.
Adebiyi said he hopes the full round of chemotherapy will send the cancer into remission, but that a full bone marrow transplant is his best chance for a cure.
“If it comes down to the wire there might be other options,” he said, referencing a procedure that uses umbilical cord blood in place of bone marrow. “But we’re still holding out hope.”
Monday’s drive required students to spend 10 minutes filling out basic medical forms and swabbing the inside of their cheeks for a method of tissue-typing that will determine the donor’s compatibility with the patient. Within four to six weeks, these new donors will be added to the Be The Match Registry, Chris Mulcahy, a recruiter for the organization, said.
Minority groups have historically been underrepresented in the registry, Mulcahy said. Because people are more likely to find a compatible donor in a member of their own race due to genetic similarity within these groups, Adebiyi said, it is often difficult for Africans like him to find a match. So, Mulcahy said, Be the Match is also focusing on recruiting more minority donors.
“It is an opportunity to save someone’s life,” said Antoine LaFromboise, a National Marrow Donor Program spokesperson. “There are people out there every day who are searching for a match and they can’t find one.”
Six of the seven students interviewed said signing up to donate bone marrow was an easy decision.
“It could be me,” Tolulope Olugboji GRD ’13 said. “Helping other people just makes sense.”
But Yemurai Mangwendeza ’13 was not so confident. Though she came to the registration, Mangwendeza said she found the complex bone marrow extraction procedure to be daunting. She left without signing up.
“That’s why I need to think about it some more,” she said. “It’s not as simple as I thought it was from the e-mail they sent.”
More than 10,000 Americans are diagnosed each year with diseases for which a bone marrow transplant from an unrelated donor is their best or only hope for full recovery. And according to the Be the Match, less than four out of ten people receive a necessary transplant.
Most bone marrow transplants are performed on people with blood cancers — such as leukemia and lymphoma — Hillard Lazarus, director of the Blood & Marrow Transplantation Program at the Ireland Cancer Center at Case Western Reserve University, said. The outcome of such a transplant depends on the patient’s age, the patient’s disease, the stage of the disease and the type of donor, Lazarus said.
“More than half the patients benefit significantly,” Lazarus said in an e-mail.