BREAKING: US Representative Mark Takai Dies of Pancreatic Cancer at 49

US Representative Mark Takai

US Representative Mark Takai, a first-term Democratic Congressman from Hawaii, has died of pancreatic cancer. He was 49.

Takai had spent ten years as a State House Representative in Hawaii before successfully winning his Congressional seat over Republican incumbent former Rep. Charles Djou in the 2014 elections. As a congressman, Takai served on the Committee on Armed Services and on the Committee on Small Business. Takai was also a decorated Lieutenant Colonel of the Hawaii Army National Guard, and served in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Earlier this year, Takai announced that after he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer  in 2015, he would not be seeking reelection, choosing instead to serve out the remainder of his term until January 2017 before focusing on his battle against the disease. Today, his office issued a statement saying that the Congressman had passed of the disease. It read:

The Takai family thanks the people of Hawaii for their support during this difficult time. Information regarding a service will be available at a later time. The Takai family politely asks for the continued respect of their family’s privacy.

Cancer is the leading cause of death for Asian Americans in the aggregate, and for most Asian American ethnic subgroups. It is the second leading cause of death for Japanese American men. Pancreatic cancer is a particularly aggressive form of cancer that accounts for approximately 3% of all cancer diagnoses, and about 7% of all cancer deaths. Although pancreatic cancer incidence rates are lowest for Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders compared to other racial groups (and highest among Black patients), this type of cancer still occurs in 8.8 of every 100,000 AAPI patients. By contrast, several other forms of cancer — including stomach, liver and thyroid cancer — have unusually high incidence among the AAPI population.

Among Takai’s many legislative priorities was fighting for improved cancer research. Last year, Takai issued a statement applauding a boost in funding to the National Institutes of Health, which includes the National Cancer Institute that is devoted specifically to cancer research. Nonetheless, funding remains woefully inadequate: the National Cancer Institute has an annual budget of approximately $5 billion dollars to develop approaches to improve outcomes for the roughly 15 million people currently living in the United States with a cancer diagnosis. That calculates out to less than $340 spent by the government per cancer patient to develop new and effective treatments for this devastating and deadly disease. As a country, we can and must do better.

This post will be updated as more information on Takai’s passing becomes available.

Rest in power, Representative Takai.

Read Also:

George Takei treated for skin cancer, and AAPI should take notice

George Takei Appears On "The Morning Show"

Last Saturday, legendary Star Trek actor and activist George Takei arrived at a charity event with a bandage on his face, ContactMusic.com reports; the actor was recovering from having had a cancerous skin growth removed from his face earlier in the week. The cancer was detected in its early stages during a routine visit to the doctor the week prior, and removed.

Takei reportedly said, “I went to my doctor for my physical last week and he detected an early sign of skin cancer here. He cut it out and that’s why I’m wearing this (bandage).”

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States, with over 3.5 million new cases diagnosed each year. But, for AAPI, skin cancer is a particularly significant health concern: AAPI have among the lowest survival rates from skin cancer of any race or ethnicity.

Continue reading “George Takei treated for skin cancer, and AAPI should take notice”

RIP Janet Liang

Just found out that Janet Liang, the brave young woman whose battle with leukemia  inspired my own registration in the national bone marrow donor registry, has died. After spending the last several years searching for a perfect bone marrow donor match, and helping to register countless new bone marrow donors, Janet received a partial match transplant last week.

Although I only knew Janet through her online persona, Janet was an inspiration. She faced her cancer with courage and optimism, and funneled her energy to register countless folks in the national bone marrow registry, Be The Match. Recently, she received the Spirit of Hope award from A3M.

Janet, we may not have known one another, but I have been indelibly touched by your incredible spirit. You were a beautiful person, inside and out, and the world seems that much greyer without you.

Thank you, Janet, for inspiring us with your courage.

For those of you who haven’t yet, please register to be a bone marrow donor at Be The Match. Bone marrow matches correlate strongly with shared racial identity between donor and recipient, and yet Asian Americans and other minorities remain profoundly underrepresented in the national donor registry. The registration process is simple, painless, convenient and free — and could one day save the life of someone with cancer.

Also, I’m going to take this moment to highlight a great Canadian non-profit organization whose name is oddly appropriate today: Fuck Cancer.

Be the Match and Save a Life

I’ve been following Janet Liang’s fight against leukemia for nearly a year.

Janet Liang is 25 years old, and has been courageously battling leukemia for the last two years. She is currently in her remaining weeks to find a bone marrow donor match.

Janet is an incredibly brave, and heartbreakingly young, Asian American heroine who was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 2009. After a year battling leukemia, Janet went into remission in June 2010, and was cancer-free for nearly a year and a half, during which time she completed her studies at UCLA and became a tutor at a local high school. Recently, however, Janet relapsed and is currently in a fight for her life. She has only weeks left to find a bone marrow match.

Unfortunately, bone marrow donation requires a high degree of genetic similarity between the donor and recipient. Writes Time Magazine:

Compared to organ transplants, bone marrow donations need to be even more genetically similar to their recipients. Though there are exceptions, the vast majority of successful matches take place between donors and patients of the same ethnic background. Since all the immune system’s cells come from bone marrow, a transplant essentially introduces a new immune system to a person. Without genetic similarity between the donor and the patient, the new white blood cells will attack the host body. In an organ transplant, the body can reject the organ, but with marrow, the new immune system can reject the whole body.

Time notes that most bone marrow donor matches occur between a donor and a recipient of the same racial background. Unfortunately, national and international bone marrow registries are populated primarily by registered donors of White racial backgrounds. This means that it can be more than twice as hard (and in some cases, far less likely) for non-White recipients to find a donor match. The Wall Street Journal reports:

While the odds of a white patient finding a match are 88%, the odds for most minorities can be as low as 60%. The odds of actually receiving a transplant are as low as 20% for some minorities because of other factors such as access to care in their communities.

Overall, Asian American patients find a match only 73% of the time (compared to between 88-92% of White patients), but this number drops precipitously within specific ethnic groups that fall under the Asian American group. For example, only 1 in 20,000 South Asian recipients are able to find a match in the national registry.

In short, there is an incredible need to diversify the national bone marrow registries to help address the incredible, and unfair, disparities facing potential bone marrow recipients of colour. Our ongoing apathy in regards to bone marrow registration is absolutely, and demonstrably, hurting communities of colour.

Thankfully, there are several organizations whose sole mission is to reach out to potential donors of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds; for the Asian American community, they include: AADPA3M and 100K Cheeks.

Registering to be a bone marrow donor is easy. You can register online with Be The Match (the U.S.’ national registry); registration involves providing your contact information, answering a few generic health questions (height, weight, etc), and requesting a kit be mailed to your home address. The donor kit will contain 4 cotton swabs and instructions for providing cheek cell samples. That sample will be used to type your tissue so that a match can be made.

If you are found to be a match, you will be asked to undergo a more thorough pre-screening test to ensure that you are healthy enough to donate. If you agree to donate, you will do so either through a non-surgical procedure involving the donation of peripheral blood stem cells, or by donation of bone marrow from your pelvic bone. Donation is painless, in most cases non-surgical, and any potential travel costs will be reimbursed (more Myths and Facts about donation here).

I registered as a bone marrow donor back in college, but today I discovered that my registration is not with Be The Match (I could be in another bone marrow registry, or my contact information may not have been updated when I moved).

I just re-registered. You can, too: Act Now! Be The Match.