Swim to benefit marrow donation fund

This year, proceeds from one of Cayman’s biggest sporting events, the Flowers One Mile Sea Swim, will go to a cause that is especially close to the hearts of the Flowers family, and to all those who knew Eve Flowers.

All registration fees for the June 11 sea swim will go to the Cayman Islands Cancer Society’s Eve Flowers Bone Marrow Donation Fund.

Mrs. Flowers passed away on April 20 after a year-long battle with acute myeloid leukemia. She was 62.

“She was beautiful, charitable, wonderful, just a wonderful person and mother and wife,” said Mrs. Flowers’s daughter Dara Flowers Burke “We said, ‘What would you like to do for this year’s swim?’ And for her it was very specific … she wanted to do something specific towards bone marrow registry.”

Eve Flowers, pictured with her husband Frank and two of her grandchildren.
The late Eve Flowers, pictured with her husband Frank and two of her grandchildren.

Mrs. Flowers needed a bone marrow transplant, but like many in need of such transplants who are of Caribbean heritage, she was unable to find a donor who was a 100 percent match.

Her son, Frank E. Flowers, was a 50 percent match and donated his bone marrow, which gave Mrs. Flowers a few more precious months to spend with her grandchildren and other family and friends.

The Flowers family hopes that the memorial fund established in their mother’s name will help Caymanians with blood cancers and other blood diseases, such as sickle cell anemia, and that those who need a bone marrow transplant will have a better chance at finding a donor match.

“In loving memory of Ms. Eve, we will be using the funds raised from the Flowers Sea Swim to increase donors of Afro-Caribbean descent,” said Jennifer Weber, operations manager at the Cayman Islands Cancer Society. “Most often, bone marrow transplant patients need a donor who is of the same ethnic or racial background. But people of color are drastically underrepresented in the bone marrow registry.”

Bone marrow donors must have identical or nearly identical HLA (human leukocyte antigen)-matched bone marrow. HLA tissue types are inherited, so a person has a better chance of finding a bone marrow match from someone who is of the same racial or ethnic background.

Parents are not usually matches; siblings are usually the best match, but only 30 percent of patients who need a bone marrow transplant find a match within their immediate family. Mrs. Flowers, for example, had five siblings, all of whom were tested, but none was a match.

According to a study in The New England Journal of Medicine, black patients from the Caribbean have only a 19 percent chance of finding an optimal bone marrow donor. Caribbean Hispanics have a 40 percent chance of finding an optimal bone marrow donor, and Caribbean natives have a 32 percent chance.

When it comes to finding a bone marrow donor match, Ms. Weber said, there’s a “staggering lack of parity.”

“[There are] just not enough physical people registered to be bone marrow donors,” Ms. Flowers Burke said. “You might have matches, because of all the mixing, in another Caribbean country, but there’s no one really in the registry, it’s so infinitesimal.”

The Caribbean Bone Marrow Registry was established in 2014 to try get more individuals of Caribbean heritage registered as potential donors. So far, only a few hundred people from the region have been registered.

“The registry is steadily growing and we would like to hit 1,000 donors by the end of the year,” said Arthur Dunk, the registry’s director. “The only limitation is funding.”

The Eve Flowers Bone Marrow Donation Fund will make it possible for individuals in Cayman to get HLA-type tested and registered as donors at no cost.

The Cancer Society is looking to partner with community groups, churches and businesses to provide venues for future donor registration drives, Ms. Weber said.

Registration is a quick and painless process that involves a simple cheek swab. No blood is taken.

Only one in 400 people who register to become a donor will be matched with a patient, according to Natasha Macfadyen, who became an advocate for bone marrow donation after being diagnosed with a rare disease of the bone marrow in 2012.

Although she did not receive a transplant, Ms. Macfadyen has been instrumental in efforts to register donors in the Cayman Islands, working with the Cancer Society and the Caribbean Bone Marrow Registry.

Ms. Macfadyen said that one of the major hurdles to getting people registered is education.

“Many people get a little squirmy when they hear about the prospect of being a bone marrow donor as they think the actual donation process is more invasive than it necessarily is,” she said.

“ … Once a person is identified as a match for a patient, stem cells are then collected rather painlessly from the donor’s blood. This process is similar to that of donating blood.”

Mr. Flowers said he knows firsthand how easy and noninvasive the process is, and added that the reward for being a donor is unmatched.

“The chances of being called are very slim … but if you are chosen, you’re saving a life. Unequivocally, you’re saving someone’s life,” he said. “People in Cayman are very generous, are very caring, are very community-minded, so I think if it is made easy and accessible for someone to help … I think people will rise to the challenge.”

To register for the sea swim, visit www.flowersseaswim.com.