When Mai Duong was sick, she made a promise to herself that if she survived, she would do something to help others in similar situations.
In January 2013, during a routine blood test, Duong was diagnosed with leukemia while pregnant with her second child.
She was forced to put an end to the pregnancy and start chemotherapy.
Though the chemotherapy brought her into remission, in 2014, she relapsed.
Duong was desperate for a bone marrow transplant.
Of the 16 million donors around the world, only one per cent of the international donor bank was of Asian origin.
Mai is of Vietnamese ethnicity, which made finding a donor extremely difficult.
The Vietnamese community in Montreal rallied, creating posters to help her find that much needed donor. Duong’s doctors eventually decided to turn to alternative methods – stem cells – and in September 2014, an anonymous umbilical cord blood donor saved her life.
While she was sick, Duong said, she promised herself that if she survived she would do something to help the approximately 18,000 people in the world waiting for a stem cell transplant.
“I wanted to make sure that my story was going to be the story I never wanted to hear about ever again,” said Duong.
On Tuesday, Duong launched the Swab the World foundation.
The foundation aims to empower patients from all over the world by giving them the tools and a platform to lead a successful recruitment campaign.
WATCH: Ellie White, 6, desperately needs a bone marrow donor to help her fight a second round of a severe form of leukemia.
It also hopes to spread awareness about the grim realities of the world stem cell donor registry.
According to Duong, 70 per cent of all registered stem-cell donors globally are white.
Similarly, in Canada, according to Canadian Blood Services and Héma-Québec, 70 per cent of the registered stem-cell donors in 2017 were white, 15 per cent were Asian, 1.4 per cent were black, and 1.3 per cent were Arab.
“I see patients trying to recruit donors, doing their public media plea and it’s heartbreaking to see those stories over and over again,” said Duong. “Everyone should have a fair fight.”
Not only does Duong hope to diversify the worldwide stem cell donor base — she only hopes to find serious and qualified donors.
“The problem that registries have is that for those who swab, once they’re called up, 50 per cent of them say no, they’re not interested in donating anymore,” she said. “So we want to keep people engaged and find qualified donors because it’s a commitment for life.”
Another way Duong hopes to help fighters and survivors is through her new book, which will be released on Nov. 7.
Called Le courage de Bébé Lionne, Duong says the story is about herself, her husband and her daughter Alice. The book is written through her daughter’s eyes.
“It’s more than a cancer book – it teaches kids about resilience, to go above and beyond, out of your comfort zone — it’s about being courageous,” she said.
Duong wrote the book while she was sick. She said it was going to be her legacy to Alice if she passed.
“After the transplant happened, I decided that the story had to be published,” she said.