Blood marrow donation is an incredible way to make a meaningful difference in someone else's life, but there are so many myths around the process. Bone marrow transplants aim to help people with over 70 life-threatening blood cancers and blood disorders like leukemia, aplastic anemia, and lymphoma, which affect hundreds of thousands of Americans every year — the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society says a diagnosis happens once every three minutes. Bone marrow produces the body's blood stem cells, and in people whose conditions can't be treated with chemotherapy or other methods, stem cell transplants from other people may be their only real hope of recovery.
But many people who might be eligible matches are deterred from registering because of myths around bone marrow donation. The fact is that, while it is a bit more intense than donating blood, it's nowhere near as painful as it's made out to be. And there are many steps before you reach that point, to make absolutely sure that it's safe and ideal for you and the person your marrow will help. Because ultimately, it has the potential to save someone's life. Here are the things you need to know about bone marrow donation before you register.
1. Registering Doesn't Automatically Mean Donating
Only a very small proportion of people who register to be bone marrow donors ever end up donating — about one in 430, according to the organization Be The Match. To join the registry itself you just need to give a swab of cheek cells or a small blood sample; registration is generally free, with some exceptions. Once you've registered, tests are done to determine your tissue type, and you're entered into the registry so that doctors can look you up if their patient has the same type.
2. If You're A Match, You'll Be Asked To Do More Tests
3. Age Matters, And So Does Race
According to Be The Match, 85 percent of all donations of bone marrow come from people between the ages of 18 and 44, so it's important to register while you're young if you're inclined to do so.
Furthermore, there's a deep need for non-white bone marrow donors; race plays a huge role in how bone marrow tissue matches up, and a study found that two-thirds of Caucasian patients may find a match on a registry, but up to three-quarters of non-white patients won't. People who are Native American or Alaskan, Asian, Latinx, Native Hawaiian, or mixed race are particularly needed to register to increase the number of potential matches.
4. You Don't Necessarily Donate Immediately After You're Matched
The rigor of the donation process continues once you are declared a match. You'll be scheduled to donate at the right time for the patient, which depends on their treatment and how their condition is progressing. It might not happen the second you're approved, and you might have to wait a few months.
5. You Can Donate In Two Ways
You might have thought bone marrow donation was one thing, but there are actually two ways to donate the stem cells a patient needs, and the doctors involved will decide which one is best. The most common one, peripheral blood stem cell donation, is similar to the process of blood donation, though it takes more time. For five days before the procedure, donors are injected with filgrastim, which stimulates the growth of white blood cells in their blood. Then, on the day of donation, blood will be removed, rinsed of the stem cells that are needed, then returned to the donor. The other, bone marrow donation, happens where doctors remove liquid bone marrow from the donor's pelvic bone under general anesthetic.
6. Recovery Is Pretty Quick
Contrary to popular belief, recovery is pretty quick. For surgical bone marrow donors, there may be a few side effects, but these are all supposed to pass off within about a week, and all symptoms are generally gone within 30 days.
Peripheral blood stem cell donation recovery is swifter, and most people report a complete recovery within about seven days, according to Be The Match. The bone marrow registry will keep in touch with you until you say you're feeling fully OK again.
7. You Could Meet The Person You Helped
Meeting up with a patient isn't immediate if you've donated to them; laws differ from state to state, but in most there's a one year minimum period after the surgery where you can communicate (sending cards and so on), but have to remain anonymous and not meet. After that, if you both consent to sharing your personal information, you can meet up and celebrate.
8. Or You Could Help Someone In Your Own Family
30 percent of people who need donations actually find one within their own families, according to Mixed Marrow. If any member of your family develops a blood-related condition that means they'll need bone marrow, your tissue will be the first port of call, but even full siblings only have about a 35 percent chance of a match. And if you experience the heartbreak and difficulty that comes with not being a match for your nearest and dearest, you'll know why it's so crucial to remain on the registry for the 70 percent who don't have matches in their families either.
Registering to be a bone marrow donor might seem scary, but odds are that you won't need to be a match at all — and if you are, a little logistical complication and a few hours out of your day aren't much to pay for saving somebody else's life.