Being Well

What’s Involved in Bone Marrow Donation? Find out If You’re a Match

Donating bone marrow is a big deal but could save a life. Are you a match? If you have a family member who is in need of a bone marrow transplant, you may be considering whether or not you should be a donor. While it may not even be an option if you are not the right match, it is still important to consider whether or not you should go through the process of finding out.

Thinking about doing a bone marrow donation brings up a lot of emotions, particularly if your family member is sick. A better understanding of the procedure may help you make your decision and see if it’s right for you and your loved one.

According to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, stem cells, which originate in bone marrow, are essential components of blood and are critical for the production of new blood and immune cells. In some patients with bone marrow disease or certain cancers of the blood, such as leukemia, lymphoma and multiple myeloma, stem cells must be replaced. The procedure is called a stem cell transplant or bone marrow transplant. Certain cancer treatments including strong chemotherapy and/or radiation can cause a patient to need a stem cell donation.

Could You Be a Match?

If you’re considering bone marrow donation, you should know it’s a major commitment. This project includes providing a cheek swab to make the initial match and follow-up phone calls and examinations, along with the actual donation. Travel and donation expenses are covered, but not the time you miss from work. In addition to being a match to donate bone marrow, you must also be between 18 and 60-years-old, healthy, not pregnant and have no history of cancer. The National Marrow Donor Program lists all the specifics requirements.

Only about 30 percent of those who need a bone marrow transplant have a match in their family, usually a brother or sister, according to the ASCO. The remaining 70 percent must find a match from lists of people who have volunteered to become donors. Finding a matched donor can be even more difficult for people of certain racial minority backgrounds or backgrounds that include multiple races. Be The Match is an organization that partners with a number of medical centers and research centers, like UVA Cancer Center, and other organizations to maintain a database of potential donors and help facilitate bone marrow transplants where needed. If you’re selected, they then start scheduling the procedures for both you and the cancer patient.

How Does Bone Marrow Donation Work?

There are two methods by which the stem cells are collected from you. Peripheral blood stem cell (PBSC) is the more common way. The U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) explains that you will receive five daily injections of a hormone. After the fifth injection, the donation procedure involves drawing your blood through one arm, running the blood through a machine that collects the stem cells and returning your blood through the other arm. Usually this collection can be completed in one 8-hour session, but it may be broken into separate sessions over two days. Side effects include muscle aches, headache, nausea and fatigue. All of your side effects should ease within a few days of completing the procedure.

Another way is the bone marrow harvest. This procedure will be completed at a hospital and may require travel. Needles are used to collect stem cells directly from the back of your pelvic bone, according to the American Cancer Society. You may go home the same day, or you may be kept overnight for observation. The risks and side effects of this procedure are mostly related to the general anesthesia. Recovery from both procedures should be quick, and donors should be back to their regular schedule within a couple of days. The registry will stay in touch with you to track your recovery and make sure you get any necessary follow-up care.

Donating bone marrow is a big deal, and it’s not something to take lightly. You should consider your own health and availability before committing. But your donation could be someone’s best chance at life, and that’s, of course, not something to take lightly either.

UVA Cancer Center’s Stem Cell Transplant Program is recognized by the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP) and is accredited by the Foundation for the Accreditation of Cellular Therapy (FACT).

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Judy Schwartz Haley
Judy Schwartz Haley