Malena's Life-Saving Search for a Stem Cell Match
Starting ninth grade in a new town is difficult. Arriving to your new school wearing a face mask is isolating. Malena Brown, 15, moved to Keller, Texas from Cleveland, Ohio in June with her mom, little brother and sister, and cancer.
The Browns split their family between the two cities last February when Gary, Malena’s father, accepted an offensive coaching job with the Dallas Cowboys. Her mom Kim she felt like a single mother during those four months as she and the children stayed in Cleveland to finish the school year. But, parenting proved to become more difficult than any couple could imagine in May when Malena was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML).
“Hearing my daughter had cancer was the toughest moment of my life,” said Kim.
Malena found a glimmer of joy when she discovered her treatment would be a pill called dasatinib (SPRYCEL®) as it does not include the common chemotherapy side effect of hair loss.
As Malena describes the complexity of making new friends – who is genuine, who fakes sympathy - she strokes her long, dark brown hair that she straightens when she does not have the time to let her natural curls dry.
The Browns transferred Malena’s care to Children’s Medical Center. Soon after, Malena’s blood counts plummeted. Her body was reacting to the medication, and her immune system became compromised. Even the simplest cold could cause Malena’s health serious jeopardy. To protect her from infection, Malena had to wear a face mask when she was in public, including Keller High School.
Because of Malena’s reaction to her initial therapy, her new pediatric oncologist, Dr. Tamra Slone of the Pauline Allen Gill Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Children’s told the family that Malena might need a bone marrow transplant.
Until targeted therapy was available in 2001, the only treatment for CML was a bone marrow transplant. Most patients bypassed transplant by taking imatinib mesylate (GLEEVEC®) or more recently, dasatinib. Malena’s body’s reaction showed that neither medication was an option for her. A stem cell transplant is the only option to replace the abnormal cells in her body with healthy blood-forming cells to cure her leukemia. But she needs a perfect match.
The Children’s stem cell transplant team tested her brother Tre, 8, and sister Dorianna, 10, as siblings have a 1-in-4 chance of being a perfect match. Though Tre and Dori matched each other, neither was as match for Malena. She would need to search the national Be The Match Registry®.
The tissue types used for matching patients with donors are inherited, so patients are more likely to find a match within their own racial or ethnic heritage. This proves to be a difficult match for Malena as her mother is Caucasian and her father is African-American.
Though more than 10 million volunteer donors are listed on the registry, only four percent of potential donors on the registry are multi-racial.
As Malena’s immune system continues to strengthen, she is patiently waiting for her perfect match to join the Registry. Coincidentally, Children’s annual marrow drive is days away. Children’s is looking for Malena’s match.
If you age 18 to 44 and are from one of the following communities, consider joining the Registry to help young people, like Malena:
- Black and African-American
- American Indian and Alaska native
- Asian, including South Asian
- Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander
- Hispanic and Latino
- Multiple race
You could save a life by going to childrens.com/bethematch.
About the Author
Cristy Ecton has worked in the Gill Center at Children’s since 2001 as outreach manager. She advocates for cancer and blood disorder patients through events like the annual Be the Match marrow drive. In fact, Cristy has been on the Registry since 1995. As a volunteer for Be The Match, she has couriered bone marrow to 35 patients across the country and even to some in Europe.