Fifteen years passed from the day in 1989 when Billy Cheung registered as a stem cell donor, to the day his phone rang in 2004, and he was told he was a match for a bone marrow patient.

“It’s very hard to describe the feeling when you know you have helped save someone’s life,” Cheung said at a news conference Friday to announce a new drive in the fight against blood cancers.

On March 27, the National Chinese Stem Cell Initiative and One Match Stem Cell and Marrow Network are launching the first ever national Chinese stem cell drive in Toronto and Vancouver in an effort to get more Chinese Canadians to enter Canada’s stem cell database as donors.

According to One Match, the current donor base doesn’t reflect Canada’s ethnic diversity, and since a person’s best chance of finding a blood or stem cell donor match is within their own ethnic group, there is an urgent need to broaden the national database.

Dr. John Doyle, head of blood and marrow transplant at The Hospital for Sick Children, echoed the need for more donors.

“We get back initial reports and we see that there’s so few donors, so few possibilities, that one crucial element isn’t going to work for this child, the time isn’t going to be there that they need.”

Currently, about 800 people are awaiting stem cells in Canada. These are people suffering from various blood cancers including leukemia, lymphoma and multiple myeloma — all of which involve uncontrolled growth of abnormal white blood cells, mainly in the blood, spleen, bone marrow and lymph nodes.

Jason Cheung, a 23-year-old York University physics student, is one of these people. He is battling acute myeloid leukemia, which a marrow transplant could cure. But he hasn’t found a donor match. Cheung was supposed to speak at the press conference, but was admitted to a Toronto intensive care unit Wednesday.

According to One Match, fewer than 30 per cent of patients in need of stem cells are able to find a match within their immediate family. And that’s when they turn to donor banks and the generosity of strangers to save their life.

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