Cancer survivor’s documentary highlights the need for bone marrow donations

Published 03 April 2011 10:51 PM

James Chippendale’s mission starts with a cheek swab.

That’s the emphasis behind his foundation, the crux of his documentary and an action that saved his life.

It’s also the reason Dallas filmgoers spent Sunday night waiting to run cotton balls across the inside of their mouths.

Once a playboy, now a philanthropist, the 42-year-old Plano native survived an aggressive form of leukemia several years ago thanks to a surprising DNA match with a German man. It’s a story he tells in More To Live For, which screened Sunday at the Dallas International Film Festival.

In a small clinic in his German village, Klaus Kaiser provided a cell sample and added his name to an international registry for bone marrow donors.

He matched Chippendale. And he agreed to a routine procedure that would provide the sick man with the healthy immune system he needed.

“It took on a simple meaning,” said Chippendale, whose window-lined Dallas apartment captures the city in panorama. “It’s the difference one person can make in the world.”

Those words became the entertainment executive’s mantra as he created a charity dedicated to supporting the world’s cancer centers and raising awareness about bone marrow donations. And it turned into the motto for More To Live For, which he co-produced.

“You only do it when you hear someone close to you needs it,” Chippendale said of being tested for the donor registry, now done via a quick Q-tip massage to the cheek rather than by drawing blood. “We’ve been reactive instead of proactive.”

A global registry serves those suffering from blood cancers or sickle-cell diseases that require bone marrow transplants. Only four in 10 people find a match. About 12 million fill the database worldwide.

The film attempts to boost those figures. It follows three men in need of donors: one who lost, one who was saved and one who continues to search. Chippendale was the lucky one.

Susan Brecker’s husband, jazz legend Michael Brecker, appears in the documentary as the one who was not.

“No one should have to die because they can’t find a match,” said Brecker, who produced the film with Chippendale. She learned about his last-minute transplant from a 2008 article that detailed the relationship he had formed with his donor.

“This is what I wanted for my husband and was unable to achieve,” she said.

She contacted him. Both wanted to increase registration numbers so that luck would play less of a role in who gets to live.

They pulled in young filmmaker Noah Hutton, the son of actors Timothy Hutton and Debra Winger. Then they discovered Seun Adebiyi, a recent Yale Law School graduate who saw his plans to become the first Nigerian in the winter Olympics stymied by leukemia. The film traces his dwindling chances of finding a match.

A theater’s entire audience volunteered to donate after a viewing in Sedona, Ariz. About 200 people registered at the conclusion of a Cleveland showing.

“People followed like the Pied Piper,” Chippendale said, remembering the line in front of a makeshift booth where assistants handed out cotton swabs and signed up movie watchers. “It’s really unique in that you can take action right now.”

The trend continued Sunday evening as volunteers of his foundation, Love Hope Strength, passed out materials and pens to eager viewers at NorthPark Center’s theater. Many signing papers had fought their own cancer battles or had seared memories of family members who did so.

“It’s a little awkward,” 25-year-old Lauren Bowers said, a long Q-tip protruding from the right side of her mouth. “I didn’t know it was that easy. I hope it works out.”

Chippendale sees such moments as the movie’s greatest potential. The foundation alone registered 13,000 donors in the past year at concerts, baseball games and music tours. The effort produced 63 matches.

“Klaus Kaiser stopped to donate and saved me,” Chippendale said. “I started a charity where people swabbed cheeks and they saved people. And who knows what those people have done. It’s one life at a time.”

‘More To Live For’ screening: 7 p.m. Friday, Highland Park Village Theater, 27 Highland Park Village, #200, Dallas, 75205.

Become a donor:
You can register online and get a kit send to your house. Go to bone-marrow-donors/ become-marrow-donor.

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