Frequently Asked Questions

What is a bone marrow transplant?

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A bone marrow transplant is a life-saving treatment for people with leukemia, lymphoma and many other types of diseases.  Prior to receiving a bone marrow transplant, patients are treated with chemotherapy (and sometimes with radiation) to completely destroy their diseased marrow.  The donor's healthy blood-forming cells are then given directly into the patient's bloodstream, where they can begin to function and multiply.  For a patient's body to accept these healthy cells, the patient needs a donor who is a close match. 70% of patients do not have a donor in their family and depend on the national registry to find an unrelated bone marrow donor or umbilical cord blood.

Why is there a need for people to become volunteer donors?

Every five minutes someone is diagnosed with a blood cancer.  And each day, there are thousands of patients with leukemia, lymphoma, sickle cell anemia, and other life-threatening diseases who are each searching for a bone marrow donor to provide a life-saving transplant.  Patients need donors who are a genetic match. Even with a registry of millions, many patients cannot find a match. Donors with diverse racial or ethnic backgrounds are especially needed.

How do I become a bone marrow donor?

The first step to become a bone marrow donor is to join the national registry through Project Life.
Doctors around the world search our registry to find a match for their patients. If a doctor selects you as a match for a patient, you may be asked to donate bone marrow or cells from circulating blood (called PBSC donation). Patients need donors between the ages of 18 and 60 who meet health guidelines and are willing to donate to any patient in need.

What is my commitment if I volunteer?

When you join the Project Life movement, you make a commitment to:

  • Be listed on the national registry until your 61st birthday, -- unless you ask to be removed
  • Consider donating to any searching patient who matches you
  • Respond quickly if you are contacted as a potential match for a patient

You certainly also have the right to change your mind about being a donor at any time. Donating is always voluntary.

What are eligibility requirements for becoming a volunteer donor?

Potential donors must be between the ages of 18 and 60 and in good general health.  They must weigh more than 110 lbs and not be HIV positive.  Donors also cannot have:  severe heart disease; a history of cancer; autoimmune diseases such as lupus or multiple sclerosis; severe asthma; hepatitis;  severe back problems; epilepsy; or diabetes requiring insulin.

How is a bone marrow match determined?

Doctors look for a donor who matches their patient's tissue type, specifically their human leukocyte antigen (HLA) tissue type. HLAs are proteins — or markers — found on most cells in your body. Your immune system uses these markers to recognize which cells belong in your body and which do not.  The closer the match between the patient's HLA markers and yours – the better for the patient.

What is the donation process like?

Adult donors may be asked to donate in one of two ways: (1) A basic surgical procedure in which liquid marrow is withdrawn from the back of the donor's pelvic bones using special, hollow needles. General or regional anesthesia is always used for this procedure, so donors feel no needle injections and no pain during marrow donation.  Or,  (2) Peripheral blood cell (PBSC) donation involves removing a donor's blood through a sterile needle in one arm. The blood is passed through a machine that separates out the cells used in transplants. The remaining blood is returned through the other arm.

Who pays for the donation process?

Donors never pay for donating.  All medical and travel costs for the donation are covered by the patient’s medical insurance National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP), and/or DKMS Americas.

Does donating marrow hurt? Are there side effects?

Marrow donation is done under general or regional anesthesia so the donor experiences no pain during the collection procedure.  Discomfort and side effects vary from person to person.  Common side effects of marrow donation include:

  • Lower back pain
  • Fatigue
  • Stiffness when walking

Some donors describe the pain as similar to achy hip bones or falling on their buttocks. Others say it feels more like a strained muscle in the back.  For most donors, this discomfort is gone within a couple of days.

Will donating marrow make me weak?

The amount of marrow donated will not weaken your own body or immune system. The average amount of marrow and blood donated is about one quart, less if the patient is a baby or child. This is only a fraction of your total marrow. Most donors are back to their usual routine in a few days, and your marrow naturally replaces itself within four to six weeks.

Will I get patient updates or meet my transplant recipient?

Some transplant centers may provide up to three updates within the first year after transplant. During the first year after transplant, some centers allow anonymous communication between you and your recipient. Some centers allow direct contact between donors and recipients one or more years after the transplant, if both you and your recipient consent.

Why does a person have to be 18 to join? Can't my parent sign the consent for me?

An individual must be 18 to donate because donation is a medical (for PBSC donation) or surgical (for marrow donation) procedure and the person undergoing the procedure must legally be able to give informed consent. A guardian or parent cannot sign a release or give consent for someone under age 18, because unrelated marrow donation is a voluntary procedure and is not directly beneficial or life-saving to the volunteer donor.

If I'm over 60, why can't I join?

The age guidelines are in place to protect donors and provide the best treatment for patients:

  • Donor safety: As one ages, the chances of a hidden medical problem that donation could bring out increases, placing older donors at increased risk of complications. Since there is no direct benefit to the donor when they donate, for safety reasons we have set age 60 as the upper limit. It is important to note that the age limit is not meant to discriminate in any way.
  • To provide the best treatment for the patient: Studies have shown that patients who receive donated cells from younger donors have a better chance for long-term survival.

If I join the Be The Match Registry, how likely is it that I will donate to someone?

On average, one in every 540 members of the national bone marrow registry in the United States will go on to donate marrow to a patient. We cannot predict the likelihood that an individual member will donate because there is so much diversity in the population. Every person who joins the registry gives patients hope, and new patient searches begin every day. You may never be identified as a match for someone, or you might be one of a number of potential matches. But you may also be the only one on the registry who can save a particular patient's life.

Does race or ethnicity affect matching?

Racial and ethnic heritage are very important factors. Patients are most likely to match someone of their own race or ethnicity. Today, there simply aren't enough registry members of diverse racial and ethnic heritage. Adding more diverse members increases the likelihood that all patients will find a life-saving match.