How a simple cheek swab can save a life

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DENVER -- The need is undeniable.  The majority of cancer patients in need of a stem cell or bone marrow transplant are not able to get one, in part because they can’t find a match.

Doctors hope more people will register to be a donor, and say all it takes to get started is a simple cheek swab.

Paige McCoy, of Parker, did find a match.  After she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia at age 28, she needed a stem cell transplant to survive. “I honestly thought I was going to die at 28,” she said.

But a total stranger absolutely saved her life.

She got to meet her donor for the first time this month at the Gift of Life Gala in New York City.  “When I saw him I just broke down, because here is basically my hero walking towards me,” Paige said.

It was an emotional night.  Her donor was a 22 year old student at the University of Tennessee who had registered with a cheek swab at a campus event.

When he agreed to donate, he had to get some shots, then the stem cells were gathered during a type of blood draw.  "The blood goes out to the machine.  The machine processes the blood, and returns the red blood cells and the rest of the blood products, except for some of the stem cells, back to the donor,” said Dr. Michael Maris, the director of research at the Colorado Blood Cancer Institute in partnership with Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at Presbyterian/St. Luke’s.

He says this act, that required no surgery, saved Paige’s life.

But Paige knows others weren’t as lucky.  “I saw patients that didn’t have a donor, and I had a donor and they didn’t, and somebody could save their life.  Just swab your cheek please.  You could really help somebody out, and it’s so easy,” she said.

If you would like to register, you can go to for cheek swab instructions, or a list of local donation events.  Your registration could also help patients needing bone marrow transplants.    But the marrow harvesting does require surgery.