An English music producer with Irish and Italian heritage is campaigning to recruit more potential donors to the Anthony Nolan donor register after being told that she needs a stem cell transplant
Local students from Belfast Marrow, a branch of Anthony Nolan based at Queen’s University, Belfast, have got behind the appeal and held a donor recruitment event in Portstewart on Sunday.
Trained volunteers spoke with members of the public at the
Portstewart Bandstand and ‘Morelli’s To Go’ about the stem cell register, and encouraged them to sign up.
After Nicole’s story went viral, thousands of people from all over the world joined their local stem cell register in the hope of helping Nicole or someone in a similar position one day.
High-profile supporters including Queen’s University Belfast, J.K. Rowling, Nigella Lawson, comedian Brian “Limmy” Limond and artist Moose Allain have been among those who have retweeted Nicole’s story.
Nicole Di Pietro-Fisher, 24, was diagnosed with leukaemia in January this year after first being diagnosed 14 years ago.
Nicole says: “I had cancer when I was 10 but went into remission at 16. I was devastated when I found out the cancer was back again.
“I was just two years away from reaching the coveted ‘ten year remission’ milestone.’”
Over Christmas, Nicole started coughing up blood and suffering from aching muscles and lethargy. Doctors thought it was just a blood clot - but tests revealed the cancer was back.
To make things worse, Nicole’s partner Jenny, who works in the RAF, had just been deployed on exercise over the Christmas period.
“I had to tell her the news over the phone,” says Nicole. “It was really hard to tell her I might be dying, knowing she was thousands of miles away. But we were both determined to stay strong.”
Nicole started radiotherapy and chemotherapy straight away, keeping in touch with Jenny over the phone and text. But then Nicole received more bad news – the cancer had spread to her brain and spinal cord.
“Doctors told me a stem cell transplant was my only chance of a cure.
“But because of my mixed-race heritage, the chances of finding a match were slim,” Nicole explains.
She contacted blood cancer charity Anthony Nolan, which matches potential stem cell donors to blood cancer patients in desperate need of a transplant.
They searched the worldwide registers to find a match, but only 0.5% of people on the Anthony Nolan register in the UK are from East Asian backgrounds and 1.5% are from European backgrounds, and the shortage of ethnic minority donors is mirrored across the worldwide registers.
There is a 25% to 30% chance of having the same tissue type as a sibling. Sadly, Nicole’s brother is not a match.
Now, Nicole’s only hope of survival lies in the hands of strangers.
Nicole says, ‘Doctors think I need to find a donor urgently. Without a stem cell transplant, I will die. If anyone is reading this thinking about joining the register, please do it now.
“You have the potential to save my life. And even if you’re not a match for me, there are thousands of people waiting for life-saving donors.”
Nicole’s partner, Jenny, adds: ‘Nicole’s time is running out. We really need people – especially those from mixed-race backgrounds – to join the register before it’s too late.’
Speaking after Sunday’s event, Amy Devlin from Belfast Marrow said: “Thank-you very much to the amazing people who joined the stem cell register at our event yesterday.
“Any one of them could potentially save the life of someone like Nicole one day as a result. Although the weather wasn’t on our side, it was a fantastic opportunity to raise awareness and it was lovely to see so much support for Nicole’s appeal.
“Over the weekend, 77 potential lifesavers signed up. We’d like to say thank-you to the staff and owners at Morelli’s To Go, who really were amazing and couldn’t have been more supportive.
“It’s brilliant to see a local business really getting behind an appeal like this. It makes a big difference.”
Ann O’Leary, Head of Register Development at Anthony Nolan, says, ‘What many people don’t realise is how easy it is to join the Anthony Nolan register – it simply involves filling in a form and providing a saliva sample. If you’re one of the privileged few who goes on to donate, 90% of the time this will now take place via an outpatient appointment which is similar to donating blood.’
People aged 16-30 can also join the register online at www.anthonynolan.org