29-Year-Old's Leukemia Fight Highlights Hurdles Certain Ethnicities Face In Finding Bone Marrow Match09:28
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The search continues for a bone marrow transplant for a 29-year-old journalist Liyna Anwar, who is in the hospital with an aggressive form of leukemia. (Courtesy of Los Angeles Times)
The search continues for a bone marrow transplant for a 29-year-old journalist Liyna Anwar, who is in the hospital with an aggressive form of leukemia. (Courtesy of Los Angeles Times)

The search is on for a bone marrow transplant for a 29-year-old journalist from Orange County, California, who is in the hospital with acute myeloid leukemia, an aggressive form of the cancer.

Liyna Anwar, a podcast producer for The Los Angeles Times who used to work with Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson at the public radio program Marketplace, is of Indian descent. Her ethnic background is proving to be a challenge in finding a transplant donor match.

Ethnic background matters when it comes to finding the right bone marrow donor match: Asians or Pacific Islanders have a 41 percent likelihood of finding a donor match compared to a 77 percent likelihood for Caucasians, according to Be The Match.

"There are specific markers they look at in these cells and there has to be, you know, ideally a perfect match," Liyna's older brother, Abbas Anwar, tells Hobson. "Ethnicity plays a large role."

Liyna's immediate family members have all been tested, but none of them is a match.

Some ethnic groups have more complex tissue types than others, which means Liyna's best bet for finding a successful match is through a South Asian donor. However, people of different ethnic backgrounds have matched before, and Liyna's family is encouraging non-South Asian people to register, too.

"I think the ultimate goal is to diversify the registry and just get more people on the registry because right now, the chances of any South Asian or any person of color finding a match are a lot lower than a Caucasian person on the registry," Abbas says.

Friends and family started a social media campaign in an effort to find a donor match for Liyna — the hashtag #SwabForLiyna has since gone viral on Twitter. Celebrities of South Asian descent, including actress Mindy Kaling and comedian Hasan Minhaj, both retweeted the message to their millions of followers.

"Kind of one thing led to another, and you know how viral things go, this message got out to some of these South Asian celebrities, who realize that this is such an important thing to deal with in our community. So they were kind enough to help us spread the word," Abbas says.

While no matches have been found yet for Liyna, the Anwar family is continuing to urge more people to get tested.

"First of all, it's very easy to sign up to be on the registry," Abbas says. "The only real restrictions are they prefer people between the ages of 18 and 44. But aside from that, as long as you're relatively healthy, you can sign up to be on the registry."

"I think the ultimate goal is to diversify the registry and just get more people on the registry because right now, the chances of any South Asian or any person of color finding a match are a lot lower than a Caucasian person on the registry."

Abbas Anwar

To register, people can visit BeTheMatch.org and enter their information. They'll then be sent a cheek swab and a premarked envelope to mail the swab sample back. Abbas says once the swab is done, it only takes a matter of weeks to be added to the donor registry.

"In terms of being scary, it really isn't a scary process," Abbas says of those who might be nervous about undergoing the blood-draw procedure needed to help Liyna. "It's relatively painless, and in the process you could be saving a life."

Abbas says there was a time when Liyna had a hard time even checking social media without being deluged with messages of support.

"She is super thankful for everyone trying to help her," Abbas says. "In terms of just the situation itself, obviously it's a tough situation. But she's one of these people that just hasn't complained at all throughout the whole process. She's been in the hospital for now six weeks and we haven't heard an ounce of complaints from her and she's staying very, very positive. And I think just everyone's support [is] also kind of helping her maintain that positivity."


To sign up to join the bone marrow registry, text "Liyna" to 61474, or visit join.bethematch.org/swabforliyna.

Ashley Bailey produced this interview and edited it for broadcast with Kathleen McKenna. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web with Jack Mitchell.

This segment aired on February 13, 2019.

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