- Associated Press - Thursday, July 22, 2010

NEW YORK (AP) - Eleven-year-old actress Shannon Tavarez should have been belting out songs in her starring role as Young Nala in Broadway’s “The Lion King.”

Instead, the 78-pound actress lay curled on a hospital bed as a doctor injected her spine with her first dose of chemotherapy.

Earlier that day in April, her doctor had first said, “leukemia.” That was when the young star’s big acting dreams were overtaken by a bigger one: survival.

Shannon will need a bone marrow transplant but hasn’t found the perfect match, says her physician, Dr. Larry Wolfe, of the Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New York.

Her search is especially daunting because her mother is African-American and her father is Hispanic, from the Dominican Republic. For bone marrow transplants, minorities and those of mixed ancestry have a more difficult time finding good matches _ there aren’t as many people from those groups signed up as potential donors.

The majority of successful matches are between people with the same ethnic background, says Kelly Taylor, donor recruitment coordinator for the bone marrow registry DKMS. The genetic makeups of donor and patient need to be extremely similar for a successful transplant, Taylor says.

“Even with 13 million people on the registry, the chance of finding a match is only 4 out of 10,” Taylor says. “That number goes way down if you’re a minority.”

Right now, 83 percent of African-American patients who need marrow transplants don’t find matches after six months of searching, according to the National Marrow Donor Program, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping patients receive transplants.

Wolfe, Shannon’s doctor, said a partial match has been found for her but a better one is being sought to help avoid complications. But first, he said, doctors are awaiting the results of a recent test that will decide whether she needs another round of chemo, which would put off any transplant for months.

The cast and crew of “The Lion King” are coming together for Shannon at the Minskoff Theater on Friday to hold a donor registration drive, letting people know that getting on the donor registry involves just a simple cheek swab. Shannon’s Broadway friends from “Wicked” and other shows will attend.

Shannon beat out hundreds of other hopefuls last year to earn her spot playing Young Nala, the girlfriend of the main “Lion King” character, Simba. For six months, she performed four shows a week, rushing to the theater after school each day.

Alvin Crawford, who acts in the ensemble, says Shannon was energetic until she became mysteriously ill with back aches, a runny nose and pasty skin.

“She was such a brave, young soul,” he said. “She would conserve her energy in order to do the show. At the places call, moments before the opening, everyone would be talking, but she would be in the corner without saying anything so she could put all her energy into her performance.”

Her general physician first thought it was a cold, says her mother, Odiney Brown. But she didn’t get better, and she went to see other doctors. A blood test showed she had acute myeloid leukemia, an aggressive cancer that afflicts mostly adults.

Shannon told The Associated Press she was “devastated to have to leave the show.”

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