Judge Carl Fox couldn’t help cracking a joke or two last week as he reflected on his battle with cancer.
“Once you get past your 40s and into your 50s, you start feeling your mortality,” said Fox, Orange County’s senior resident Superior Court judge.
“Instead of four weddings and a funeral,” he said, referring to the 1994 movie, “it starts becoming three weddings and two funerals, or two weddings and three funerals.”
It was no laughing matter in April, after Fox visited his doctor for a spot on his leg. He hadn’t been feeling well for several months, Fox said, and thought it might be a blood clot.
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Blood tests instead found it was Myelodysplastic Syndrome, a cancer in which the bone marrow fails to make enough healthy blood cells. Everything else the doctor said was a blur, Fox said. He kept his composure until he made it home.
“While I was all alone, I cried,” he said. “I cried a few times. I make no apologies. If you have heard those words addressed (to) you and you did not cry at some point, you are just different.”
He followed his doctor’s advice, cancelled court for three weeks and took it easy. His first thought was this is what retirement feels like, he said. It wasn’t for him, so he’s fighting back. He’s been on this road before with his sister Angela Fox, a 20-year cancer survivor.
Fox is getting regular chemotherapy treatments, but it’s vital that he finds a blood-marrow donor.
Family and friends have rallied to his side, joined by people in the community and others Fox knows from his youth in Raleigh, his college years at UNC and his 30 years as a district attorney and judge. The response has been “truly amazing,” he said.
They’ve partnered with Project Life Movement and Delete Blood Cancer to raise awareness and register bone-marrow donors. More than 2,100 people have joined the “Save the Fox” Facebook group, posting well wishes, videos and photos of their donor cards. Several events are being planned, including a two-day registration drive next month in Chapel Hill.
Finding a match
Fox could find out as early as this week if there’s a match for him. The best candidate is probably a 21- to 25-year-old black man, Orange County Sheriff and longtime friend Charles Blackwood said, but anyone age 18 to 55 and in good health can register.
“The more possible matches that enter the registry, the better the odds that Carl will have to find that match,” Blackwood said.
They’re also looking for volunteers to help with the registration drives, he said, and contributions toward the $65 cost of registering each donor.
Registration is easy and painless. Fill out an online form at nando.com/1dg and use the kit that comes in the mail to take a cheek swab and submit it to the registry. Volunteers will be available to help at the registration events.
The donation process, if you’re a match, can take up to 30 hours, said Betsie Letterle, with the national Be the Match Registry. It’s not as painful or dramatic as people think, she said. Short-term side effects can include headache, muscle pain, bruising and fatigue.
Doctors use two methods: peripheral blood stem cell donation, which involves inserting a needle into the donor’s arm and is most often used; and bone marrow donation, involving a local anesthesia and a syringe inserted into the pelvic bone. Both are outpatient procedures, she said.
About 20,000 patients a year need a bone-marrow transplant, statistics show. There are thousands of tissue types, Letterle said, and family members are a match only 25 percent of the time. More than 18,250 transplants were performed in 2013.
It’s 97 percent likely that white patients can find a match, she said, but it’s 66 percent to 67 percent for black patients, because there are fewer registered black donors. Young donors, ages 18 to 25, offer the best chance for success.
Be the Match has helped with 1,530 North Carolina bone-marrow transplants since 1996, and more than 1,300 residents have donated, she said.
Fox said he’s lucky to have so many friends and the support of his girlfriend Julia Kemp-Smith, clinical director and co-founder of Medical Day Spa of Chapel Hill. He’s also thankful for his team of doctors and caregivers at UNC’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, he said.
It’s amazing someone can save a life by doing something so simple, Fox said. While he donated blood for years, this has opened his eyes, he said, and he’s sharing his story so others can live, too.
“The more people on that list, the more likely other people on it will find a donor,” he said.
‘Save the Fox’ drive
A bone marrow donor drive will be held from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Friday, July 17, and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday, July 18, at University Place (formrly University Mall), 201 S. Estes Drive in Chapel Hill. Find more information about bone-marrow donation – and a link for registering by mail – at nando.com/1dg.