reviewed 9/3/2018

Bone marrow donation: True or false?

For people with leukemia, lymphoma and many other life-threatening diseases, a bone marrow transplant may be the best—or only—hope for a cure. It replaces diseased stem cells—immature cells that become blood cells—with healthy ones. And these cells are collected from a donor. How much do you know about bone marrow donation?

True or false: Donating always requires surgery.

False. Today stem cells are usually collected from a donor's blood with an IV. And when surgery is required, it's a minor procedure. Doctors remove bone marrow—soft, fatty tissue inside bones that contains stem cells—from the back of pelvic bones.

True or false: Donation is incredibly painful.

False. Surgery to remove bone marrow is done with general or regional anesthesia. So there's no pain at all during the procedure. There may be some discomfort later, such as a headache or achy back or hip. Donating stem cells from blood, which takes about three hours, might cause a headache or sore bones.

True or false: You can sometimes donate stem cells to yourself.

True. There are two types of donation. In the first type, people donate cells to others. If you donate cells to someone else, your genes and the other person's must at least partly match. Siblings make the best matches. But sometimes other relatives are also good matches.

True or false: Most people who need stem cells can get them from family members.

False. Only about 30 percent of people who need a transplant have a relative who is a good match. The other 70 percent—or some 12,000 people every year in the U.S.—turn to a bone marrow registry, such as bethematch.com. Registries store the information of people who are willing to donate so doctors can find matching donors.

True or false: A donor's age matters.

True. Doctors request donors ages 18 to 44 about 85 percent of the time. That's because studies show that cells from younger donors lead to better long-term survival for people who have had bone marrow transplants.

Using donated bone marrow or stem cells is just one way doctors treat diseases of the blood like leukemia. Learn more about leukemia in both children and adults.

Visit the leukemia topic center

Sources: Be the Match; Health Resources and Services Administration; National Library of Medicine

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