For most healthy people, awareness about leukemia, a cancer of the body's blood-generating tissues (including the lymphatic system and bone marrow), usually begins after someone they know has been diagnosed with it.
And, if the flavor of leukemia that friend or family member has is particularly acute and aggressive, it will likely require chemotherapy treatments and a bone marrow/stem cell transplantation.
The trick is finding the right bone marrow match, a needle-in-a-mile-wide-haystack process made even harder largely by one huge fallacy: An assumption among the healthy that testing and donating bone marrow is too complicated and very painful.
Testing is as simple -- even for needlephobes -- as rubbing the inside of one's cheek briefly with a long cotton swab. Donating is a bit more invasive, but it's similar to donating blood.
Unfortunately, the need for bone marrow donors far, far outstrips the participation which is what attracted Susan Brecker to a 2008 New York Times piece about entertainment entrepreneur and leukemia survivor James Chippendale meeting Klaus Keiser, his bone marrow donor who repairs bikes more than 5,000 miles away in a small German town west of Berlin.
In James, Susan found a kindred soul. Despite organized bone marrow drives all over the world and constant searches through the International Bone Marrow Registry, her husband, 15-time Grammy winning jazz legend and tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker, lost his battle with leukemia little more than two years after being diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome at the too young age of 57.
No surprise, Susan and James bonded, and soon did a "Vulcan mind-meld" on how to build awareness about how easy it is for people to be tested for and become a bone marrow donor. The result eventually became More To Live For, an 83-minute documentary directed by Noah Hutton and co-produced by Susan and James that's winding its way across America via special screenings and festival showings.
What follows is a short interview with Susan about her life with leukemia and a video trailer of their documentary. Find future showings of this enlightening, entertaining and very hopeful film by visiting the MoreToLiveForFilm.com website.
Learn more about the various forms of leukemia, by reading Understanding Leukemia, available as a free PDF download from the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
Q: Considering the fight that both of you had been through with leukemia what made you both want to revisit it by making a documentary?
I think that after one has faced a terminal illness, you live with that your whole life. So in a sense, we have not revisited our struggle, but have continued to expand and integrate the experience. Knowing how easy it is to save lives, and how largely unknown this fact is to most people, we felt that there was no choice in making this information available to everyone who would hear it.
Q: More To Live For is indeed a rich, multi-layered story about winning and losing the battle with leukemia. What really made this story click for us: The addition of Seun Adebiyi, the Yale Law School grad training to become Nigeria's first Winter Olympian when he was diagnosed with lymphoblastic lymphoma and stem cell leukemia. How did you two learn more about him?
Noah (Hutton, director) and I were introduced to Seun by Katarina Harf, the vice-president of DKMS Americas, Seun had come to Katarina for help in finding a match, so he might have a life-saving transplant. We were looking for a person who was at this same stage of their journey. When we met Seun, we instantly knew he would be the right person through which we could tell this part of the story.
Q: Unlike other documentaries and feature films we've seen about cancer, we were struck by the very hopeful tone of More To Live For, and the lack of "heroes," save for Klaus Keiser who merely did what we should be all doing: Becoming bone marrow donors. Was this an intentional decision?
Again, hand-in-hand with having an illness like leukemia exists the hope that a cure will be found. While one struggles with doctors, intense physical symptoms, health insurance, etc., one is always cognizant of the hope one needs to continue onward every day. Hope is a natural part of any cancer story.
Q: We got the bone marrow donorship message loudly and clearly. Are audiences responding as you two and Noah hoped they would?
We are completely thrilled. It is our mission to raise the awareness about the need for new donors, and we are enormously gratified to see people registering to become donors after each screening. So far, 100 percent of the eligible audience members have been tested, which is huge. We know that many more matches will be made and lives saved as a result of our efforts.
Q: Your director, Noah Hutton, did a little bit of everything for this project. Tell us more about Noah's journey to find creative, entertaining ways to weave these three very different stories into one very realistic, but hopeful, film.
Noah is a thoughtful filmmaker. He has a natural ability to tell stories about people, where they are respected and valued on film. When we presented him with our ideas for the film, we spoke about ways to best convey our message.
Noah conceived of the idea of the three perspectives, and found a way to capture the essence of the three men. I believe it is his skill as a filmmaker and editor that empowers the viewer to experience these stories as separate but connected.
Q: Part of your foundation's mission to raise money for this cause is to combine screenings with performances by some of the greatest pop and jazz performers around, something Michael would be profoundly proud of. How close is this to becoming a reality? Or, what about a benefit CD?
We are beginning to travel the globe with this film, which include jazz and music festivals. Michael was not only a great artist, but a much beloved man in the music industry. We are so blessed with being able to carry his message to his fans and colleagues around the globe who loved him and his music.
Thanks for the idea about a benefit CD… We’ll think about it!