- By Dana Sparks
Sharing Mayo Clinic: Diversity in bone marrow transplantation is gift of life for their mom
Only 20% of minorities are able to find a match when they require a transplant. But for one African American mom of five, finding that match meant the gift of life.
Family is everything to Felicia Curtis. Family is the reason the mother of five from Gainesville, Florida, knew she had to fight when she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2017. She was 20 weeks pregnant with her youngest child.
Over the next several months, Curtis underwent several rounds of chemotherapy to fight the cancer. Her son was born healthy at 33 weeks. The future looked bright.
But six months later, the cancer returned and the prognosis looked grim.
Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma accounts for 4% of all cancer diagnoses in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society. More than 81,000 people are diagnosed annually with the disease, and more than 20,000 will die from it.
Curtis' health care providers in Gainesville recommended she move her care to Mayo Clinic since it has an extensive bone marrow transplant program.
In August 2019, after meeting with Ernesto Ayala, M.D., a Mayo Clinic hematologist and oncologist who specializes in caring for patients with cancers like hers, Felicia underwent an autologous bone marrow transplant. The procedure uses healthy blood stem cells from a patient's own body to replace diseased or damaged bone marrow.
The treatment seemed to work for a little while and Curtis felt great, but the cancer returned yet again. She was not prepared to give up, however.
"But I believed I was meant to be here to raise my family," she says, noting her confidence in her Mayo Clinic care team. Her faith was not unfounded.
Challenges in finding a donor
Dr. Ayala had a plan for Curtis. He suggested a second transplant ― an allogeneic stem cell transplant that relies on healthy cells from a donor.
There was only one challenge: Curtis is African American, and it can be challenging for patients of color to find a donor.
"The biggest challenge that we have to finding donors to proceed with bone marrow transplantation is ethnicity," Dr. Ayala says. "Only about 20% of all minority patients find a match."
Siblings and parents are sometimes matches. Otherwise, a match may be found in the national bone marrow donation registry. The problem is most people registered as donors are white.
"The most important factor when we look for a donor is HLA matching. HLA stands for human leukocyte antigens, which essentially are just markers in the surface of the cells," Dr. Ayala says. But having the most optimal match means a better chance at success.
In Curtis' case, family members were screened first and then ruled out. A search of the national bone marrow registry revealed only partial matches.
Finding a match
Curtis began educating people and encouraging friends and others to be screened as bone marrow donors ― if not for herself, then to help someone else.
"There is a lack of knowledge and understanding about what it is to register and to be a donor, and how it can affect a lot of lives by you just doing one selfless act," she says.
She got a call in August 2020 that a match had been located. It was exactly one year from the day of her first transplant.
Read the rest of Felicia's story on Sharing Mayo Clinic.