Art has been a defining element of Yuan Pan’s life. He’s studied it. He’s taught it. He’s made it. And he’s turned it into a business.
Pan, 48, taught art and graphic design at Keene State College for nearly 20 years before leaving last summer to start Goose Pond Tileworks, which specializes in ceramic art tiles made from locally sourced materials. On his website, Pan said the mission of Goose Pond Tileworks is to “bring beauty, wonder, and imagination to our everyday life.”
But the Westmoreland resident had to hit pause on his business this spring when a blood disorder he’s lived with for more than a decade transformed into a type of cancer called myelofibrosis.
“Basically, my bone marrow is losing its function to produce cells,” Pan said.
Pan said doctors told him his only option is a stem cell transplant. It is a complicated procedure with a long recovery time, and has a 15 to 20 percent mortality rate. But if it succeeds, the procedure would be a complete cure.
He and the search team at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, where he is being treated, spent two months looking for a donor match for the transplant.
“They had a search team searching for a match from the American registry, the world registry, the Chinese registry and some other registries as well. But they could not find a match.
“So at this point, I’m a little stuck,” he said.
Pan, who was born and raised in China, said his sister, who still lives there, was found to be a half match, which is not ideal. They are figuring out how to fly her in from China — which is somewhat challenging during the pandemic — if no better matches are found.
Pan began sharing his story on social media a few weeks ago to raise awareness about the process of becoming a stem cell donor. He hopes this will help him find a match.
“But if I am not benefited directly from this, it can benefit other blood cancer patients in need,” he said.
Erica Pritchett, a former student of Pan’s, saw a Facebook post by Pan about his cancer and the search for a match. She was shocked and heartbroken when she learned of Pan’s diagnosis.
“You come across people in your life who have something to share and offer and inspire others,” Pritchett said. “And he is one of them.”
She has kept in touch with Pan since graduating, and considers him a friend and mentor. She says he’s made a positive impact on the lives of so many students at Keene State.
Pritchett, who lives in Marlborough, immediately began researching the donor process to find out more about the National Marrow Donor Program, or Be The Match.
“I scoured their TikTok and Instagram to learn about the process,” she said. She received a test kit and performed a mouth swab that she mailed back to the registry. If she is found to be a match for anyone looking for a donor, the registry will contact her for the next step in the process.
“It’s tough to see anyone diagnosed with that, but when it’s someone that you know, that you’re close with and really care about, it just really hits hard that that can happen to anyone,” she said.
If she matches with someone, Pritchett said she intends to go through the entire process. According to the registry’s website, the majority of donors who match donate stem cells through a nonsurgical procedure similar to donating blood. The process is spread out over four to six weeks, and most donors recover and return to normal activity within one to seven days.
“If you could save a life, that just feels like the right thing to do,” Pritchett said. “Because if I was in that situation, I would hope that someone out there would have the same mindset.”
Dr. Christopher Reilly, a physician-scientist and the donor service medical director at Dana-Farber, said most stem cell transplants for people with blood cancer are done for patients whose disease is advanced and for whom traditional treatments would not work.
Traditionally, the most common way to find a match was to test a patient’s relatives. However, Reilly said the creation of registries like Be The Match has enabled more and more people to find a match from unrelated donors.
To find a match, doctors test to determine the types of immune proteins on the surface of their blood cells, looking for a person who has a number of identical specific proteins on their cells as the patient, Reilly said. Geographic, demographic and ethnic backgrounds are the primary factors that determine the likelihood of a match.
“Individuals of the same geographic and ethnic background are more likely to have proteins that are similar,” he said.
According to Be The Match, there is a need for donors from diverse ethnic backgrounds. A white patient has a 79 percent likelihood of finding a match on their registry, while a Black patient has only a 29 percent likelihood of finding a match. For people who identify as Asian, like Pan, the likelihood of finding a match on the registry is 47 percent.
Most blood cancers treated with stem cells from a healthy donor are derived from cells in the bone marrow, Reilly said. Bone marrow is tasked with making the cells in the body that perform functions such as carrying oxygen to organs, allowing blood to clot in a healthy way and helping fight infections. For people who have cancers and disorders of the bone marrow, that process is impaired, Reilly said, speaking generally and not about any specific patient.
“We recommend patients for stem cell transplants with the hope that we can restore their normal blood production by getting rid of their blood cancer cells by replacing them with stem cells from a healthy donor. And so the idea is to restore the normal function of the bone marrow and prevent the blood cancer from coming back.”
Pan is hopeful, but also scared.
“It’s a lot to take,” he said.
Thinking of leaving behind his wife, Pirawan, and 7-year-old daughter, Adeline, frightens him.
“I’m not ready to say goodbye yet,” he said. And he worries about how much his young daughter would remember him if he does not survive the transplant procedure.
But he’s coping by spending as much time as he can with them, and by focusing on preparing himself physically through exercise for a transplant.
“The better shape I go into the procedure, the better chance I have to survive,” he said.
Anyone age 18-40 who is interested in becoming a stem cell donor can text PanStrong to 61474 or visit my.bethematch.org/PanStrong.