After consulting a doctor about hot flashes and night sweats, NBA superstar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was diagnosed with leukemia. He considered the diagnosis a death sentence, but today his health is fine. Abdul-Jabbar gets his blood checked regularly, takes his meds, and consults with his doctor to maintain good health and a minimum of disruptions to his lifestyle.
Once a fatal disease, chronic myelogenous leukemia or CML, can now be kept under control for 80% – 90% of patients with oral medications. However, not all African Americans facing this cancer prognosis are as lucky.
What is leukemia?
Leukemia is cancer of the blood cells. It starts in the bone marrow, the soft tissue inside most bones. Bone marrow is where blood cells are made.
When you are healthy, your bone marrow makes:
- White blood cells, which help your body fight infection.
- Red blood cells, which carry oxygen to all parts of your body.
- Platelets, which help your blood clot.
When you have leukemia, the bone marrow starts to make a lot of abnormal white blood cells, called leukemia cells. They don’t do the work of normal white blood cells, they grow faster than normal cells, and they don’t stop growing when they should.
Over time, leukemia cells can crowd out the normal blood cells. This can lead to serious problems such as anemia, bleeding, and infections. Leukemia cells can also spread to the lymph nodes or other organs and cause swelling or pain.
Blacks, Leukemia & Transplants
For many of them, bone marrow transplants are the only thing that can save their lives. However, a new study suggests not everyone has the same access to marrow transplants. Because blacks are underrepresented in the national donor registry, nearly 85% don’t find matches after six months of searching. Every year, more than 10,000 Americans are found to have cancers of the blood, such as leukemia or lymphoma.
Our community especially suffers the most because many times we don’t come forward and donate blood or marrow.
African Americans are less likely than whites to receive hematopoietic stem cell transplants (HCT) — an expensive procedure that can greatly increase survival for cancers of the blood, a new study found.
Overall, Caucasians were 40% more likely to undergo HCT to treat leukemia, lymphoma, or multiple myeloma than African Americans (OR 1.40; 95% 95% CI 1.34 to 1.46), according to the report published online May 24, 2010 in the journal Cancer.
Bone marrow transplants are often the only treatment for blood-related cancers. The treatment, however, is dependent on the patient finding a donor who shares a similar genetic makeup. In most cases, that means the match is found in someone of the same race. But the black community has a particularly tough time attracting donors.
What can be done?
Protein-rich foods are broken down into amino acids, the building material for every cell in your body. You require an average of 46 to 56 grams of protein every day to help sustain healthy bone marrow and other tissues. Good sources include meat, poultry, fish, dairy foods, legumes and vegetables. Research published in 2002 in the “American Journal of Nutrition” notes that patients who undergo bone marrow transplant have enhanced protein and energy needs. The study recommends that patients get a daily amount of 1.4 to 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight to help renew and repair the bone marrow.
Also, a key function of bone marrow is to produce red blood cells — the iron-containing cells that carry oxygen to every part of your body. You must get iron from your daily diet — approximately 10 to 20 milligrams every day. If you are pregnant, you will need 27 milligrams of this mineral daily. The University of Utah notes that your body only absorbs about 10 percent of this dietary iron, most of which is used by your bone marrow to produce red blood cells. Animal sources such as liver and organ meats, poultry, fish and shellfish contain heme iron, which is more easily absorbed by your body. Plant foods such as whole grains, green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds give you less readily absorbed nonheme iron.
Did you know that donating bone marrow can be painless and as easy as donating blood? Did you know that registering to be a donor only requires a swab of your mouth?
Every day, thousands of patients with leukemia and other life-threatening diseases hope for a marrow donor who can make their transplant possible. 70% of patients do not have a donor in their family. They depend on donor match registry and they depend on people like you.
Patients are more likely to find donor matches within their own racial or ethnic background. For African Americans specifically, we have more genetic diversity than any other race. However, the number of black donors on the national registry is still low. Registration is free, easy and painless.
Reviewed by: Dr. Melvin Gaskins