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Spit for Riley: 9-year-old girl with cancer recruits 1,000 bone marrow donors

The family learned that 70 percent of people who need a bone marrow donation rely on anonymous donors. And there's a serious shortage of donors.

by Meghan Holohan / / Source: TODAY

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Riley Furlong wants your spit.

The 9-year-old knows this sounds gross, but it might save a life.

“I’m asking you for something I am pretty sure you have plenty of, I am asking you for your spit,” Riley said in a YouTube video she made to raise awareness about signing up for the bone marrow registry. “Have you ever heard of anything easier than sending spit to save a life? Crazy world, huh?”

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Riley has acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a cancer of the blood cells, which form in the body's bone marrow. Lymphoblastic leukemia occurs in the white blood cells, which usually fight infection, but because of the cancer, they don't work the way they should.

Riley was diagnosed in December 2016 after she couldn’t quite kick a cold. For more than a week, she suffered from headaches and vomiting. While doctors first treated her for the cold, blood tests revealed her white blood cell count was exceedingly high. Her mom, Alex, took her to an emergency room in Austin, Texas, and doctors told them Riley had leukemia.

Now over a year later, Riley needs a bone marrow transplant to treat it. While Riley is lucky — it seems like her sister will be a match for her — 70 percent of people who need a bone marrow donation rely on anonymous donors. And there's a serious shortage of donors.

 When she's feeling bad after chemotherapy treatments, Riley likes hanging out with the family dog. Courtesy of the Furlong family

"There’s a lot of people out there with blood cancer and they need a bone marrow transplant," Riley told TODAY. "I could kind of save a life by telling other people they can save other people by swabbing."

Millions of people are waiting for bone marrow, according to Sam Hillhouse, a representative from Be The Match, a national marrow donor program.

Riley's goal of adding 1,000 people to the registry through saliva donation can save two lives. Only one out of every 430 people is called to donate because their sample matches someone who needs a bone marrow transplant. There's a reason it's so tough to find a match.

"You match based on your HLA (human leukocyte antigen) type," said Hillhouse. "It's a protein on most cells and the diversity there is enormous. It is really like finding a needle in the haystack."

Joining the bone marrow registry is actually as simple as Riley says. People 18 to 44 years old sign up at Be the Match website and they receive a sample kit. They swab their cheeks, return the sample and are entered in the database where they stay until they are 61.

“I am helping people understand leukemia or any blood cancer,” Riley said about her campaign, Spit for Riley. “It is a good feeling.”

Recruiting donors hasn’t been all work. She and her dad, Bill Furlong, shared laughs while they were filming her YouTube video. It often took her 20 takes of each frame to get it right.

“I actually enjoyed it very much. It was really fun because some of the mistakes sounded pretty funny,” she said.

When Riley's family recently learned she needed a bone marrow transplant, they were devastated. Riley had been in remission, but her leukemia returned. Doctors believed bone marrow was the best way to quash it. Her family felt so grateful that Riley's sister Anabella seemed like a good match, they wanted to do something to help those who needed donations from strangers.

“This is really a pay-it-forward thing. It is not about getting folks to join the registry for Riley,” Furlong told TODAY. “This is a moment where we can do something to give back and make the system work better.”

 For a little over a year, Riley Furlong has been battling leukemia. Despite exhausting chemo, she remains happy and often jokes around with family and her doctors. Courtesy of the Furlong family

“No one wants to see their kids sick and this is one of the tougher things you have to do,” her dad said.

Though Riley is sick, she rarely complains.

“She’s ‘Smiley Riley’ for a good reason,” Furlong said. “She is a chipper, good-spirited, happy kid 90 percent of the time.”

Riley admits she sometimes feels scared, especially when her treatments hurt, like getting blood drawn from the port in her chest, which she described as “basically like getting stabbed in the chest.” But she has her own methods of coping: She eats burgers or tacos afterwards and practices self-care.

“I take a nap. I hold my mom’s hand and I squeeze it pretty hard, but not too hard,” she said.

 Riley Furlong needs a bone marrow transplant to treat her leukemia. While her sister will likely donate, she is asking 1,000 people to submit their saliva to join the bone marrow registry. She hopes her efforts will save a life. Courtesy of the Furlong family

Riley tries to remain brave and making the video helped. She hopes Spit for Riley leads to, “swabbing, lots and lots of swabbing.”

Adding, “It’s good because more children can find a match.”

Thanks to Riley, 1,000 new potential donors were added to the registry by February 28. But she doesn't want people to stop. People can still spit and register at Be the Match.

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