What's So Important about Bone Marrow Donation?

A local documentary sheds light on the difficulties of finding a bone marrow match for cancer patients with diverse ethnic backgrounds.

By Bryanna Briley July 12, 2017

Imani cornelius during bone marrow transplant yjnjtl

In the new documentary Mixed Match, Imani Cornelius gets a bone marrow transplant. 

If your child were diagnosed with cancer, your ethnic background might be the last thing on your mind. But what if it were a factor in saving your kid’s life?

That’s what makes local filmmaker Jeff Chiba Stearns’ documentary Mixed Matchscreening at the NW Film Center on Wednesday, July 19, essential viewing. The film follows five individuals struggling to find a bone marrow match for a potentially life-saving operation—and the difficulty of finding them due to the patients’ diverse ethnic backgrounds.

“It’s not a topic a lot of people know about,” says Stearns. “It’s good to be able to inspire people and get them to take that call to action to go to bone marrow registries or to donate cord blood [blood from the human umbilical cord] if they have a child.”

One of the cases he follows is that of Portlander Hunter Thawley, whose African American, Native American, Korean, and Caucasian ethnic mix was far from his parents’ mind when he was first diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia at only 14 months. “I don’t think we necessarily considered our background and that it would play such an important role in finding a match that would allow him to live a little longer,” says his mother, Lenore. “It is such a difficult process.”

Hunter and family hqm55n

Hunter Thawley with his parents. 

Image: Todd Thawley

Few people realize that a bone marrow transplant can add years to the life of a cancer patient. Even fewer know about the complexities of genetic matching. Unlike getting a blood transfusion, for instance, where all you need is the same blood type, a stem cell transplant is only possible if you have at least six out of eight HLA (human leukocyte antigen) match—which means if you have a diverse ethnic background, you have to find someone with similar ancestry for a transplant to be possible.

Stearns hopes his documentary will get more multiethnic individuals on the registry, to be able to help families like the Thawleys. Hunter had chemo, blood transfusions, radiation, and even a cord blood transplant, but he never found a bone marrow match. He died at just three years old. 

Yet seven years on, the Thawley family—who now run the Healing Hunter Foundation, which brings toys to children currently hospitalized—see this documentary as evidence of a powerful momentum. “I think [the film] presents it to the general public in a really positive way," Lenore says. "It’s amazing that someone else can save a person’s life that has cancer. Hunter’s been gone now seven years and so much has happened just in that time, so I can’t imagine in another 10 years what treatments will be available.”

Mixed Match is an educational experience, and a reminder of the impact we can make on strangers in need. Says Lenore: “These kids aren’t just dying—they’re fighting! And if we can help them fight, then I want to help them fight.”

Mixed Match - Festival Trailer 2016 from Mixed Match on Vimeo.

Mixed Match

7 p.m. Wed, July 19, NW Film Center’s Whitwell Auditorium, $6–9 

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