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Bone Marrow Donation: What to Expect as a Donor

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Donating your blood and bone marrow is strictly a voluntary decision. When you decide to do this on behalf of someone else, you agree to let the doctors draw blood stem cells from your blood or bone marrow which will in turn be transplanted into the recipient. Donations such as these are used to treat certain cancers and other diseases. If you have a family member who requires a transplant, you may be a good match for that individual.

What exactly are blood stem cells? Simply put, they are the cells that make all of the body’s blood cells. After forming in the bone marrow, they enter the bloodstream. They are not to be confused, however, with the embryonic stem cells used in cloning and other research endeavors.

Until recent years, all donors had to undergo surgery in order for the bone marrow to be retrieved. Bone marrow was drawn from the hip bones. Now, however, blood stem cells can be directly collected from the blood. This is referred to as peripheral blood stem cell (PBSC) donation. The blood stem cells can also be obtained from the umbilical cord at birth, but in small amounts only.

The risks associated with this particular type of donation are slight. However, the PBSC form of donation necessitates that you take a medication to draw more blood stem cells from your bone marrow. As a result, certain side effects may present, such as headaches, fatigue, bone pain, muscle aches, nausea, vomiting, and sleep disruption. Fortunately, the potential side affects dissipate within a few days after taking the injections.

The process of taking the blood stem cells from your blood can also cause a few milder side effects, such as the chills, numbness or tingling around your mouth, a feeling of lightheadedness, and cramps in your hands. These can all be treated and will discontinue after the donation process is completed.

By conducting a test called human leukocyte antigen (HLA), doctors can determine if you are a match for the recipient. You inherit your HLA proteins from your mother and father. As such, full siblings are usually the best opportunity for a match.

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Thank you Ann for writing this article and helping make more people aware of the way that making a blood marrow donation has changed in recent years, becoming much easier for the donor. As someone with Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML), I know that a bone marrow transplant may be needed in the future and have recently been researching this topic. I found a comprehensive list of Frequently Asked Questions provided by the National Marrow Donor Program to be very helpful, and others may too: http://www.marrow.org/PATIENT/Support_Resources/Patient_Frequently_A/index.html

Some of my fellow CML survivors have described the process of being being tested for an appropriate donor - it can be very long due to the need to screen multiple donor candidates to find just the right one. In the meantime, the person's life may be in jeopardy. I appreciate all that you, and others, are doing to make more people aware of this tremendous need and of the fact that lives that can be saved.
Take care, Pat

May 3, 2010 - 6:07pm
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.