‘Swab for Caryn’: Queens lawmaker announces Flushing event to help woman diagnosed with rare form of cancer find a matching donor

Swab for Caryn
(From l. to r.) Dr. Ron Jacobs, Christina Hsu, Council Member Sandra Ung, and Evelyn Yang outside The Shops at SkyView in Flushing on Wednesday, May 18. (Photo courtesy of Ung’s office)

City Council Member Sandra Ung is encouraging everyone, especially members of the Asian community, to help a 32-year-old woman find a matching donor to save her life through a “Swab for Caryn” event that will be held on Sunday, May 22, from  2 p.m. to 5 p.m. at The Shops at Skyview in Flushing

Ung was joined by Evelyn Yang, Dr. Richards Jacobs of Be The Match, and Caryn’s sister Christina Hsu at the front entrance to Target on the fourth floor inside the shopping center, where the event will take place. 

“Take a few minutes out of your Sunday afternoon and join the thousands of people who have already been inspired by the ‘Swab for Caryn’ team and added their name to the list of potential donors,”’ Ung said. 

Caryn Hsu, a newly-wed who moved to California from New York City to pursue her graduate studies in Marriage and Family Therapy at the University of Southern California, was shocked to learn that she had been diagnosed with B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), according to her story shared on Be The Match, a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to helping patients get the lifesaving transplant they need.  

Swab for Caryn
Caryn Hsu. (Photo via Twitter/Swab for Caryn)

B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia is cancer that affects a person’s “B lymphocytes” — white blood cells that grow in the soft center of the bones, called marrow, according to WebMD. 

As the very rare and aggressive form of cancer was overproducing white blood cells, Hsu began a series of chemotherapy. Unfortunately, the treatment began to destroy her healthy red blood cells as well as the white blood cells, and she relies regularly on blood infusions to keep her strength up. 

A blood stem cell transplant is the best chance for Hsu to be cured of leukemia. She is more likely to match with a donor who is of Asian descent, but only 9% of the potential donors on the Be The Match Registry are Asian. 

Be The Match is the organization that houses the information of volunteers who have agreed to be donors. Partly because of the low number of registered Asian donors, only 47% of Asian patients in need of a transplant ever find a suitable donor.

The test is simple and requires only a ten-second swab of the cheek. Yang has been helping Hsu’s sister organize “Swab for Caryn” events across the city.

“We have had some really successful events, collecting over 7,000 swabs in the last two months,” Christina Hsu said. “Unfortunately, we haven’t found a match yet because finding a match is very rare.”

According to Yang, every three minutes in the United States, someone is diagnosed with blood cancer. 

“Caryn is one of the thousands of patients waiting for a stem cell transplant to save their lives,” Yang said. “This is about saving Caryn, and also about growing the registry so that none of us will have to face the terror of not being able to find a donor match for a loved one when their life depends on it.” 

The ideal donor is between 18 and 40 years old. According to Jacobs, a common misconception is that a family member will be a match, but 70% of the time, a close relative is not a suitable donor. 

In Hsu’s case, her sister wasn’t a match. 

Jacobs, who is not only a regional director for Be The Match, but a stem cell donor himself, said another common misconception is that a transplant requires some form of surgery, but that only occurs in special cases. Jacobs said he was back at work after just a day of rest following his life-saving donation.

“If you come up as a match, 85% of the time the cells are obtained through your bloodstream,” Jacobs said. “If anyone has ever donated platelets, it’s the same method. The old marrow donation is only done in pediatric cases and very rare cancers.”

 Ung urged Flushing residents to join the Be The Match registry.

 “Even if you aren’t a match for Caryn, you could potentially be a match with another cancer patient in need of a life-saving transplant,” Ung said. “What better way to mark AAPI Heritage Month than saving the life of a member of the AAPI community?”

 To help patients like Caryn Hsu, Be The Match is launching the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Member Enrollment Program to increase the number of blood stem cell donors of Asian American and Pacific Islander ancestry.