SAN JOSE -- Ryan Manansala spent much of his 29 years helping others, whether it was aiding autistic children or mentoring kids as a Big Brother. Now battling cancer, he's devoting his energy to promoting bone marrow drives that can help him and others find donor matches that can save their lives.

"Yeah, you could say I'm the poster boy right now," the 29-year-old San Jose resident said from a cancer center in Houston. "I personally don't like it, but there is an obligation to others. I don't want to see people have to wait and wait on the list and then die."

Ryan Manansala, 29, of San Jose, is being treated in Houston for leukemia and awaiting a bone marrow transplant that may save his life.
Ryan Manansala, 29, of San Jose, is being treated in Houston for leukemia and awaiting a bone marrow transplant that may save his life. (Courtesy Quan Nguyen)

He learned two years ago he had acute myeloid leukemia, a form of blood cancer. He needs a bone-marrow transplant and he needs it now. Talking on his cellphone from the MD Anderson Cancer Center, Manansala said he was there for special chemotherapy treatment to buy him some time.

While a local bone marrow registration drive is named after him, Operation Save Ryan is not only for him. The drives will be held Saturday and Sunday at the Great Mall in Milpitas, on Saturday night at the San Jose Earthquakes soccer game in Santa Clara and on April 15 and 16 at UC Santa Cruz, his alma mater. Donors should be 18 to 44 years old.

"If they find a match for me, fine," Manansala said. "But it's really about getting more people to register for the benefit of everyone on the transplant list."


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Not that his case can be pushed aside. Chemotherapy worked for him early, but then the leukemia came back with a vengeance. Along the way, the illness cost the Yerba Buena High graduate his job working with disabled children. Then his father lost his job. Although his mother continued to work, the Manansala family lost its house in East San Jose.

"It's been a roller coaster in the extreme," he said. But looking on the bright side, "My father losing his job allowed him to become my full-time caregiver."

For severely afflicted AML patients, bone marrow transplants are often the last hope. In the procedure, healthy stem cells from a compatible donor are inserted into the bone marrow of leukemia patients to create normal blood cells.

In Manansala's case, nobody in his family was a marrow match. Then his medical people turned to a national registry of would-be donors. They looked for compatible Filipino donors with no luck. Because he's part Chinese and Spanish, they looked through those ethnicities, too. Again, with no luck.

Basically, Manansala is down to hoping a new, compatible donor signs up soon. A match might surface from a registration drive held anywhere in the country by any number of groups, and it might come from a donor who is only part Filipino or Asian. In fact, the Asian-American Donor Program is more multiethnic and racial than its name implies. The group has put on bone marrow drives at Christian churches, Hindu temples, Muslim mosques and Cinco de Mayo festivals.

Ruby Law, who is recruitment director for the Asian program, said registration is easy and painless. All it takes is a pass of a cotton swab inside the cheek.

"And that's it," she said, "we don't even take blood."

The procedure puts donors on a nationwide list for cancer doctors to check regularly for a match. When they find one, the donor is asked to give blood or marrow from the hip bone that is replenished within a day or two. In about 75 percent of donations, Law said, there is no need to poke a needle into a bone.

"It's easier than people think," Manansala said.

For times and directions for the weekend marrow drives, go to www.operationsaveryan.tumblr.com or www.aadp.org.

Contact Joe Rodriguez at 408-920-5767 and follow him on Twitter.com/joerodmercury.