Leukemia Patient Becomes Advocate for Diversity on Bone Marrow Registry

Aja Fisher's dream of becoming a doctor was put on hold after a leukemia diagnosis. She's sharing her story to help raise awareness of the need for bone marrow donors among minority populations.

Aja Fisher's dream of becoming a doctor was interrupted when she became a patient. It started with a "sharp, shooting pain down her left leg," The Florida Times-Union reports. A steroid shot provided relief. But two weeks later, the pain returned and was on the move, affecting Aja's back as well. Another injection led to another pain-free two weeks. Then the pain was back and moving again. "It was starting to affect my mobility," Aja tells the Times-Union. "I feared being paralyzed." Soon after, she received "a stunning diagnosis — leukemia." Aja "was in shock and in complete disbelief," she tells the paper. But she was also determined. "It wasn't really an option for me not to fight for my life."

That fight began in Atlanta, where Aja was attending college. Chemotherapy initially "sent the leukemia into remission." When it returned, Aja decided to return to her hometown of Jacksonville and begin treatment at Mayo Clinic. She had more chemotherapy and eventually was told she would need a bone marrow transplant. "I had a lot of questions," she tells the Times-Union. They were answered by "an amazing team and a determined doctor" — James Foran, M.D., a hematologist/oncologist at Mayo Clinic.

One thing Aja learned was that as an African American, her likelihood of finding a compatible bone marrow donor on the national registry was just 23 percent. "The biggest challenge that we have to find donors to proceed with bone marrow transplantation is ethnicity," Ernesto Ayala, M.D., a hematologist/oncologist, tells Mayo Clinic News Network. "If I have a patient that belongs to an ethnic minority, then I will only find a donor in the registry in about 20 to 25 percent of cases."

Thankfully, Aja's team did find a compatible donor, three months after she went on the registry. She had a bone marrow transplant in October 2018 and "has since become an advocate for other people who need life-saving bone marrow." Especially people like her. Aja is sharing her story to help raise awareness of the need for donors among minority populations. "I think there is a lack of diversity due to a lack of information," she tells the Times-Union. She wants people to know the registry "is a lifesaver" and "a blessing unlike anything you can imagine, giving someone a chance at life."

She's grateful for her chance, and plans to use it to help others. "I still plan to go to medical school," Aja tells the Times Union. "I feel as though my future might have oncology in it."

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