Cancer survivor hopes to meet bone marrow saviour

Cancer survivor hopes to meet bone marrow saviour

Photo above: Mr Ng Yi Yong (right), who was diagnosed with lymphoma, received bone marrow from a stranger four years ago.

SINGAPORE - She is in Taiwan, more than 3,000km from Singapore.

He has never met her, but her bone marrow saved his life four years back.

Mr Ng Yi Yong, 31, who was diagnosed with lymphoma (cancer of the lymph nodes) six years ago, hopes to meet his guardian angel through the group that helped matched them.

When he does so, he says that he would bow to her in gratitude.

Bone marrow recipients like Mr Ng owe their lives to the thousands of anonymous donors who register themselves with the Bone Marrow Donor Programme (BMDP), a group that matches bone marrow donors to patients.

The BMDP held a charity dinner in March at Mandarin Orchard Hotel that raised more than $500,000.

The money will help pay for the DNA testing for those who sign up to be donors.

It is aiming for 5,000 new sign-ups this month.

With more sign-ups, those who suffer from such diseases may get a second chance at life, like Mr Ng.

Fever for half a year

He was a few months into the job when he was diagnosed.

Mr Ng said: "I had fever for half a year, went for many check-ups at hospitals and there was pain in my pelvic region."

When he received the news that he had lymphoma, his mind went blank.

Possibility of death

There is a possibility of death with the condition, and he knew it.

He said: "I underwent chemotherapy for half a year, but the cancer cells did not shrink, so I had to undergo a transplant."

When his elder sister proved to be an unsuitable match, he was referred to the BMDP, which tried getting him a suitable donor.

The BMDP is the only bone marrow donor registry in Singapore.

"This kind of things - I can't just put it on Facebook to ask people to donate, right?" joked Mr Ng.

In two months, BMDP found four donors who matched him.

"I guess I was lucky. I actually laughed when they told me they found four."

Despite the luxury of having so many donors, Mr Ng was still apprehensive about going ahead with the operation, which was scheduled to take place in Singapore.

"I was scared of the pain. I was also uncertain about the loneliness, as I would have to be in the isolation ward for very long."

Depending on the patients' post-op condition, they will be hospitalised for 20 to 30 days.

Two years after his diagnosis, he underwent the transplant.

"Staying in that room, cut off from everyone, was an experience no words can describe. Plus, I was very weak due to my low immune system," recalled Mr Ng.

"There was emotional pain, psychological pain, and physical pain, all in one."

In the four years he was undergoing treatment, Mr Ng had to stop working.

"I'm very thankful that my company took me back after my treatment," he said.

Single clue

Single clue of who life-save is

He is especially grateful to his donor, although he still does not know who she is.

This is due to the anonymity clause, which states that it is only after two years that a donor and recipient can meet.

"I only know she is a Taiwanese, roughly two years older than me."

He wishes to meet her and thank her personally for saving his life, as he feels it is the least that he can do to express his gratitude.

In 2009, a year after his transplant, he needed a further donation of white blood cells.

That same donor willingly donated to him again.

"There's not much tangible benefits for the donor, and if anything, it's even an inconvenience. So I'm really very thankful."

He hopes BMDP can help him get in touch with her.

BMDP is helping him fulfil his wish by making inquiries with the donor's side.

If both parties are willing, contact details will be exchanged and a meeting can be planned.

"I think if I see her, I will really bow to her... It's a gift of life that she gave to me."

Small thing for doner

Small thing for donor, but do-or-die for recipient

The couple lost their young son to leukaemia.

Not wanting the same plight to befall any other parents in Singapore, they started a bone marrow registry here.

And that was how, in 1993, the Bone Marrow Donor Programme (BMDP) was started by Mr Gerald Loong and his wife. They had lost their son, Andrew, to leukaemia when he was just five.

The main task of the BMDP is to build a database of potential donors. It provides transplant services by finding matches for patients referred to them by hospitals.

Mrs Jane Prior, president of BMDP, explained to The New Paper that bone marrow is crucial for the treatment of diseases such as leukaemia, thalassaemia and lymphoma. In blood, there are platelets, and red and white blood cells, which all have different functions.

The bone marrow is the “factory” where all these are produced.

“Bone marrow transplant used to be risky, difficult and expensive. Today, it’s almost a routine treatment,” she explained. Her own son was diagnosed with leukaemia at 11, but underwent a successful transplant and is now 28. World-class, but... Added Mrs Prior: “We live in Singapore. We have absolutelyworld-class medical treatment.

“However, if you can’t find a donor, all themedicine in the world isn’t going to helpyou.”

Within siblings, there is a one in four chance of finding a match.Outside of the family, there is a one in 20,000 chance of finding a match.

The hospitals first look for a match among siblings. If that fails, they move outside of the family, and that is where BMDP steps in.

Mrs Prior said: “We coordinate with other bone marrow donor registries around the world, such as in Taiwan, US, Hong Kong and Germany, which has one of the biggest registries in the world.”.

This means that patients can seek overseas donors if one can’t be found locally.

Local donors might also be donating to save someone’s life overseas. Last year alone, there were 174 local requests for bone marrow.

The international requests would be at least thrice that, according to Mrs Prior.

“That’s why we need the database. Right now, we have 50,000 in the registry. We are aiming for 5, 000 sign-ups this year,” she said.

Between 2009 and last year, there was an average of 3,316 donors annually. Mrs Prior said:

“It might be a small thing to a donor, but for a recipient, it’s do-or-die.”

She stressed that the donors must also be willing to step forward if the need for his or her bone marrow arises. “A few weeks ago, one donor backed out. Sadly, the patient didn’t make it,” shared MrsPrior.

To get more donors, the BMDP is looking at more corporate outreach. “Just (last) Thursday, we held a donor drive at Google,” said Mrs Prior.

Donating bone marrow is painless

Donating bone marrow is painless

Someone else needs it. That was the simple reason Mr Ng Chin Sheng, 33, gave when asked why he donated his bone marrow.

The freelance events photographer is the only one in Singapore who has donated his bone marrow to two different recipients.

The transplants were done in 2007 and last year. Due to an anonymity clause, he has never met either of the recipients.

He also does not know the outcome of the transplants. He said that the first time, he was apprehensive about donating, but he eventually decided to go ahead.

“Singapore medical standards are very high. I knew I was in safe hands,” he said. Mr Ng was quick to dispel the common misconception that a bone marrow transplant is a painful process for thedonor.

“During the process, you are under general anaesthesia, so no pain is felt at all,” he explained. He said that for a week or so after the operation, the donor might feel a little backache.

“Just pretend you did too much exercise,” said Mr Ng, with a laugh.

He first came across the Bone Marrow Donor Programme (BMDP) in 2004, after seeing an advertisement. He did not take action immediately after seeing the advertisement, and it was only in 2005 that he registered.

“I was at the blood bank in Outram to donate blood, and I saw the BMDP office (which was located there then) so I went in and enquired,” said Mr Ng.

All it took was a prick on the finger to take a small blood sample to conduct DNAtests.

Buccal swabs

Mr Ng was quick to add: “All these little pokes are nothing compared to the pain the patients feel.”

About a year back, BMDP began using buccal swabs (taking DNA from the cells in a person’s cheeks) to replace the finger-pricking procedure.

Mr Ng said that a donor would be called to donate only when needed. His first donation came two years after he signed up.

Mr Ng wants to encourage more people to sign up as donors. The demand is so high, the supply can’t match it.

“It’s an opportunity and a special privilege to help someone in this way.”

A perfect genetic match is needed for a transplant to take place.

“It’s not like blood donation, where you’re just one in the whole system,” said Mr Ng.

“In bone marrow donation, you are the only one. There’s no second choice.”

When asked if he would undergo a third transplant, if ever he was called up, Mr Ng answered without hesitation. “I will definitely go again. I couldn’t live with that for the rest of my life.

"My one decision would affect whole families.”

This article was first published in The New Paper .

Purchase this article for republication.

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