Thirty-one-year-old Kwazinkosi Mhlongo from KwaZulu-Natal responded to a hero’s call with kindness when he found out that he was a matching donor for a blood cancer patient. Blood stem cell donations are often the only chance of survival for people living with the disease, with women making up 60% of registered donors on the global registry as opposed to men who make up only 18%.
“I saw a WhatsApp status from Mama Nontembeko who’d shared a story about a patient in need of a donor,” he says. “Curious, I asked her for more information. I then registered, received my swabs, and sent them in. It was very easy and I wasn’t sure what would happen next but I was happy I did it.”
Inspired by the spirit of ubuntu
According to DKMS Africa, leukaemia is reported to be one of the most common cancers in the world, with blood cancer diagnosis being more prevalent in men than women.
“When I got the call that I was a matching donor I had mixed feelings. I was scared but excited because this was my chance to save someone’s life, so I said yes,” says Mhlongo.
He knows all too well the devastating impact of a cancer diagnosis.
“I have seen cancer take the breadwinners of families and even their children. Growing up in the early 90s, KwaMaphumulo instilled strong values in me. Where I come from, if you can help someone then you do it with an open heart, even if you don’t have much to give.”
“I strongly believe in our collective duty to care for and help one another. If we did that, then society would be a better place. We all deserve a better quality of life and it’s not all on our government to provide that, it is a shared responsibility.”
Calling on male donors
Patient services and donor recruitment manager at DKMS Africa, Xolani Hlongwane, shares insight from two recent studies which revealed that women rated themselves higher in empathy than men, saying that this is reflected in his work on the ground.
“Women have more of an emotional connection when they hear about other people’s afflictions, be it men, women or children.”
“We find that men need more facts and stats,” he points out. “They want to know how long the procedure takes and what will be done with their DNA, for example. There is a logical process that they need to understand. So, when it comes to recruiting people to become blood stem cell donors, there can’t be a one-size-fits-all approach.”
‘Don’t let fear stand in your way
Tumi Sole, a corporate attorney and founder of #CountryDuty, a social movement founded to empower South Africans to be more action-oriented in relation to matters that affect the country and communities we live in, say that statistics reveal that women between the ages of 17 and 34 are almost twice as likely to become donors than men the same age.
“More importantly, young men make up most long-term blood donors as they’re likely to have more iron which means that they can donate more regularly than women. To recruit men to register as donors, I believe that it is vital to raise awareness around the blood stem cell donation process,” he adds.
“Most men fear needles so educating them against various myths associated with blood donations may change the narrative. I also urge celebrity figures that these men identify with, to be at the forefront of such important initiatives.
Donations are harmless
Hlongwane says that contrary to widespread belief, donating stem cells is a completely non-invasive procedure.
“If you are a successful match, the process of donating blood stem cells is painless, much like donating blood platelets.”
“Men need to have a better understanding of how much they are needed to support our cause. Not only do they produce more stem cells due to their genetic and hormone makeup, they are also more likely to be available to donate since women can’t do so during pregnancy and for at least six months after childbirth,” adds Hlongwane.
In over 90% of cases, he explains that stem cells are taken from the bloodstream.
“This procedure does not require anaesthetic or admission to hospital. During the collection, blood will be drawn from one vein and passed through a machine that collects the stem cells, before the rest of the blood is returned to the body through the other arm. It is normally completed within four to six hours, and although there are needles involved, these few hours of your time can save someone’s life.”
Anyone who is in good health and is between the ages of 18 and 55, is eligible.
“When the kit arrives, you will need to swab the inside of your mouth and cheeks, and a courier will collect the kit from you within five days. The swabs will then be analysed to determine your HLA (Human Leukocyte Antigens) characteristics. Once your samples have been analysed, you will be added to the registry to be available for patients searching for a donor,” explains Hlongwane.
Get the Health For Mzansi newsletter: Your bi-weekly dose of kasi health, wellness and self-care inspiration.