What do you think of when you hear the term "bone marrow donation"? That it's excruciating, expensive, and time-consuming, right? Nope. There are a lot of myths surrounding the donation of bone marrow, which is one of the most profound acts of medical altruism that any person can do for a member of their family (or, in many cases, for a stranger). And realistically, while it's not quite as simple as going to give blood and walking away with a fancy bandage, the need for bone marrow and stem cell donations is so profound that you should be proud to endure a little discomfort for the cause.
This is particularly pertinent for me personally, as a close friend's brother is battling a particularly rare form of cancer and will likely shortly require a transplant; but it shouldn't require an intimate connection for you to give the idea a shot. For one, it's free; for another, the vast majority of donations are actually via injection, not via surgery. Plus, this is also basically the only situation in which it's necessary, in fact encouraged, for you to spit in a tube or swab your cheek and then send that by mail across the country. (That's how the donor registry looks at your DNA for potential tissue matches. It's a bit cooler than just seeing your red blood cells packed away in a bag, eh?)
Here are six reasons why you should take five minutes out of your day and register as a bone marrow donor — ASAP, now, immediately. You can then reward yourself with cake for being an awesome person.
1. It's Extremely Necessary
The bone marrow itself isn't actually what donor agencies are after: it's the stem cells inside. Those are used to combat serious blood conditions, and are often some of the last options available to those affected. According to statistics, over 130,000 Americans every year are affected by a serious blood disorder, with the most famous being leukemia; the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society estimates that a diagnosis happens once every three minutes, and that nearly one and a half million Americans are currently living with a blood disease. Not all of these people will require a bone marrow transplant (the Mayo Clinic estimates that the number of new diagnoses requiring transplants is about 10,000 every year), but that's still a very significant number.
2. Donating Isn't As Painful As You Think
Here's the interesting thing about getting onto a donor list for bone marrow and/or stem cells: it doesn't involve the promise of a donation. Instead, potential donors give their details and a DNA swab, and will only be called on to give a donation if they're found to be a match. The National Marrow Donor Program estimates that only 1 in 300 people will be selected as the best possible match for a patient, and 1 in 430 people on the registry will actually donate. It's crucial that if you sign up, you keep your address details current in the donation system, so they can reach you if they need to.
And the actual donation itself isn't particularly inconvenient or painful. There are two types: in 90 percent of cases, donors donate their stem cells in a process called peripheral blood stem cell collection, which is remarkably similar to giving blood, while in the other 10 percent, donors give bone marrow from the bones of their pelvis. As the National Marrow Donor Program explains, PBSC, the first option, involves a five-day prep period where you're given drugs to increase your numbers of stem cells, and then you sit in a comfortable room for up to eight hours while your stem cells are collected through a needle, with the same amount of pain as an IV. (You'll likely not feel fully yourself for about a week afterwards.) The second option, bone marrow donation, involves an overnight stay in a hospital and an operation under general anesthetic, in which a surgeon removes bone marrow from your pelvis using a needle. It's bruising and will be a bit achey for about a week afterwards, plus you'll likely be woozy after the general anaesthetic, but there are no long-term effects.
The old-school reputation for pain likely comes from the fact that, back in the day, 100 percent of bone marrow transplants were done via this method; it's not pain-free, but it's by no means agonizing, and the hospital will help you find targeted pain medications for your needs.
There are absolutely no long-term health effects of bone marrow donation, which is always nice to know. And here's an important thing to note: the costs for bone marrow donation in both the U.S. and the UK are covered by the donor organizations themselves, including travel costs.
3. It's Particularly Important For People Of Color
Matching tissue types is dependent on racial backgrounds, and that can mean that people of color have fewer options when it comes to bone marrow and stem cell donors. It's estimated that only 66 percent of all African-American patients will have a matching donor, and the numbers hover at 72 to 73 percent for people of Asian descent, Hispanics, Latinos, and Pacific Islanders. The National Health Service identifies particular shortages for South Asians, Jewish people of European origin, Mediterranean, and Afro-Carribean people. And if you're mixed-race, the likelihood of a match gets even less likely. Which is why it's crucially important for everybody non-white gets themselves on a registry, STAT.
4. You Have To Do It While You're Young
There are age restrictions on donors; it's very much a young person's game. In the U.S., you're able to donate up to the age of 60, but in 95 percent of cases, doctors will only use the donations of people up to the age of 44. (In the UK, you're not actually allowed to donate over the age of 49.) The regulations are largely in place because of the relative health of donors, and the associated problems that can come with donation as people get older; general anesthetic, for example, can get riskier. The younger the donor, the more likely the transplant will be a success.
5. It's Insurance For Your Own Family
Being on the bone marrow and stem cell registry as a donor is of immediate benefit to your own family, for the very good reason that when doctors are looking for a tissue type match, they look to family first. In 30 percent of cases, people who need a donation find one within their own families; the fact that 70 percent then have to look for strangers emphasises the importance of a diverse registry. But there's a caveat: the most likely stem cell donor matches in families are siblings, and beyond that, it's much less likely (Cancer Research UK acknowledges that this can be "frustrating"). But I know you're not just looking after your own; and being on a bone marrow registry for the rest of the American population looks like a pretty good bet, frankly.
6. You Could Meet The Person Whose Life You Save
In the case of organ donation, another selfless act of medical aid, it's often the case that, regrettably, you may not meet the person whose life you save; and that's almost always the case with those who get your blood donations. But bone marrow and stem cell donations, within the limits of privacy law, can actually connect donor and patient if they happen to be strangers. In the U.S., the law mandates that you can contact one another, but must remain anonymous for one year or more, and can only have contact and reveal identities if both parties consent. (In the UK, it's two years.) This can be particularly poignant because leukemia, one of the diseases that most requires stem cell donations, often strikes children. Imagine watching some kid you've never met get the chance to grow up, all because you were willing to go through a tiny little bit of pain.
If you want to become a donor in the U.S., sign up at BeTheMatch.org.
Image: Simon Caulton/Wikimedia Commons