This Fresno State student had cancer and was near death. A stranger saved his life

Marcus Cato was a healthy 20-year-old athlete when he received a diagnosis that threatened to end his life.

The Fresno State student and former Clovis North High School baseball player had acute myeloid leukemia, doctors said, a fast-growing cancer of the blood and bone marrow.

Chemotherapy treatments were successful in killing the cancer, but Cato’s immune system remained damaged. To fix that, he needed a bone marrow donation, and none of his family members were a match.

“That was my only opportunity of living a normal life again,” Cato said. “I most likely would have passed away. I could only go six weeks without chemo without a transplant.”

Cato received life-saving information in August 2016, three months after his cancer diagnosis. A woman in Massachusetts, Matene Cates, had bone marrow that Cato’s body could accept.

Cates underwent an invasive surgery – a needle placed into her hip bone to draw out bone marrow – to save a stranger’s life. It was worth the pain.

“They told me he was in dire condition,” she said, “and he didn’t have much longer.”

Cates and Cato met for the first time last week, more than a year and a half after the transplant. The emotional meeting happened on a stage in New York City during a glamorous fundraiser gala for DKMS, a nonprofit that works to increase the number of bone marrow donors.

The pair shared hugs and tears that were met with applause.

“I was elated,” Cates said. “I was on a cloud.”

Her selfless donation restored Cato’s health.

“I hope that people see making a simple sacrifice can save a person’s life, like Matene did for me,” Cato said. “She gave me a second chance to live my life.”

Need for donors

Cato faced more of a challenge in finding a donor because he is biracial – Caucasian and African American. There are fewer registered donors who are minorities.

A bone marrow match is more likely between people who share the same ancestry, DKMS leaders says, and “this is why it is crucial to diversify the registry and recruit as many people as possible.”

One person in the United States is diagnosed with a blood cancer every three minutes, the organization says, and blood cancer is the second most common cause of death among all types of cancer in the U.S.

DKMS reports the need for African American donors is most urgent because they have the most diverse human leukocyte antigen (HLA) gene complex. The organization said its donors are primarily Caucasian (61 percent), followed by 11 percent Hispanic/Latino, 7 percent Asian, 7 percent African American, 5 percent mixed race, 1 percent American Indian/Alaska Native, and 0.1 percent Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander.

Cato’s family helped organize a drive that got 600 more people registered as bone marrow donors. The community rallied around Cato when he was in the hospital, including a visit from NBA player and Fresno native Quincy Pondexter.

Cato hopes to get more people registered as bone marrow donors as a hospital administrator someday. He’s majoring in business at Fresno State to try to make that dream a reality.

Cates works in Massachusetts as a dialysis nurse. She points out that the easiest way to donate bone marrow is through a procedure that filters blood to remove needed cells, then returns filtered blood to the body, much like dialysis. She instead underwent surgery to extract bone marrow because she didn’t qualify for the less-invasive procedure.

More information about becoming a donor is available at dkms.org, which markets itself as the world’s largest bone marrow donor center.

“There are so many people who don’t make it because there’s not enough people on the registry,” Cates said. “So if they don’t have a family member that can donate, sometimes strangers are the only people who can save them.”

Carmen George: 559-441-6386, @CarmenGeorge