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Leukaemia patient sparks minority bone marrow drive

Bengu Shail. Pic: African-Caribbean Leukaemia Trust

A Forest Hill woman being treated for leukaemia at Lewisham Hospital has sparked a bone marrow donation drive – drawing attention to a serious lack of donors from minority ethnic backgrounds.

Bengu Shail, 34, who is a case studies officer for Macmillan Cancer Support, has acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. Although there are 20 million people on the worldwide donor list, none can provide bone marrow to match hers.

Shail’s case is especially pressing as she is from northern Cyprus, and there is a severe shortage of bone marrow from Cypriot donors – both Greek and Turkish. To find a match and raise awareness of the lack of donors, the Croydon-based African-Caribbean Leukaemia Trust are working with the Leukaemia Cancer Society and the Anthony Nolan Trust, running bone marrow donation drives across London.

Shail said: “For me, as much as I’m appealing for myself, and I’d obviously like to find my own donor to stay alive, the most important thing is for people to realize that bone marrow donation is simple, it’s not barbaric, and it’s easy to do. If we all understood what it was and we could all do it, we could cure cancer because it’s not in the hand of the scientists – it’s like giving blood.”

Ethnicity is an important factor when matching donors and patients, since many genetic characteristics that determine the success of a match are inherited, or unique to a particular race. Successful donations are, therefore, most successfully drawn from one’s own ethnic community. White northern Europeans have a 90% chance of finding a donor, while the rate for BME’s stands at just 40%.

Shail was originally diagnosed with ALL in 2009. After intensive treatment, she went into remission but, in October 2012, discovered the leukaemia had returned. Speaking about her diagnosis, she said: “Nobody in my family ever had cancer. I was young, I was healthy, I never smoke and I went to the gym. It really was a case of never thinking it would happen to me.”

Dr Fasil Kucuk Turkish School in Catford will host a drive from 11am to 5pm on Saturday, December 8, in support of Shail. Events are also being held in Edmonton and Wood Green.

Ronke Ige of the ACLT spoke of the benefits of running such drives. “It gives us the opportunity firstly to spread awareness and get people on the register, but also to educate people. Many people have been misinformed about the process of donation.”

Ige told Eastlondonlines that although the charity usually specialises in African-Caribbean donors, their expertise makes them well-placed to help Bengu Shail. She said, “We have more than 16 years of experience in targeting harder to reach communities, which is why Bengu approached us”.

Encouraging people to attend one of the drives, Shail said: “Often people look to gods and scientists but in this case, the power lies with us.”

Click here for a full list of bone marrow drives.

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