Last December, I was in an office meeting when my phone buzzed with a text that said: "Lara's been diagnosed with leukemia." As plans for the staff Christmas party continued around me, I sat paralysed with shock. How could my cousin, the closest thing I have to a sister, have cancer at the age of 24?
That morning, life's priorities seemed to crash into a new order. Lara had been in Thailand doing research on social services for refugees. She had flown to Bangkok feeling unwell, but not seriously ill. But within a week of arrival she could barely walk. Little did we know that in the next two months, over 50,000 people around the world would join the stem cell registry in a search to save Lara's life.
Families who have confronted serious illness all remember the agony and confusion that follows an unexpected diagnosis. From doctors we learned that blood cancers like leukemia can strike at any age. We learned that Lara needed to immediately start multiple rounds of grueling chemotherapy to kill the cancer in her body. And we learned that she would need a stem cell donation within 3 months to save her life.
The hardest news was that stem cells are bound by the shackles of genetics. Lara's donor would need to be a genetic match for her body to accept the donated cells, and a matching donor would likely be of a similar ethnic background. Lara has always celebrated being half Italian, half Thai. Currently, only 3% of people in the global donor registry identify as mixed race. When a doctor used the "needle in a haystack" analogy, my heart broke. But if more mixed race people joined the registry, the chances for Lara to find a match would increase.
The Match4Lara campaign was and is a movement to make that tiny chance grow by expanding and diversifying the global registry. Lara agreed to the campaign with one condition - that we recruit donors of all ethnicities and mixes, not just potential matches for her. While Lara's match would most likely be half Asian, there are thousands of patients of all ethnicities desperate for a match. So it was for Lara and all blood cancer patients that we filmed and posted our first Match4Lara video:
The first Match4Lara video, an appeal for Lara
That video, a simple plea to join the registry filmed in Lara's bedroom, flew across the internet in days. As Lara began chemotherapy, friends, colleagues and complete strangers around the world asked how they could help. Reporters called to write about Lara. Other cancer patients reached out promising to spread the word. We laughed in disbelief when JK Rowling tweeted for Lara, and cried when a man made an 8-hour bus trip through Thailand to register in Bangkok.
Jed left a message for Lara after 8 hours in a bus to join the registry
Joining the registry takes a simple cheek swab or spit sample, and the UK registry website crashed from the number of new registration requests. Because of the woman in Colombia who messaged me daily asking after Lara's health, and the university that ran our flyer on every campus fitness machine, I allowed myself the smallest hope.
The news of Lara's match was like the first burst of a firework show in a very long and dark night. Sitting in a coffee shop, I stared into my latte as tears streamed down. Lara had just won the lottery of genetics.
October marked 6 months since Lara received her donor's cells. Her immune system is growing stronger each day and she recently was able to volunteer at a drive herself for the first time. She smiles knowing that many more matches will come for other patients from people who registered with Match4Lara. Since March, we have already seen multiple friends go on to donate after matching with other patients.
This month we also celebrate the thousands of people who were the heart of Match4Lara. It was through normal people who learned, registered and spread the word that we reached and passed 50,000 new registrants. From friends holding drives, to strangers just sharing a post, we learned that big change starts with small acts.
In an age where our news feeds seem to be bleeding with hatred and violence, from the US presidential election to the conflict in Syria, Lara's story reminds us that people can come together instead of be torn apart, and the potential to save a life can for once receive more attention than the news of ending one. Lara is alive today because of a stranger who recognised that our genetics can unite rather than divide us.
The mission of Match4Lara continues even as Lara recovers. There are thousands of patients still waiting for stem cell donations and the more we expand the registry, the more patients will find a donor. So join us, and join the global registry. You may one day be the match to save a life.
Lara and me, three months post transplant.
How can you join the registry? Learn here: www.match4lara.com