How to Be a Bone Marrow Donor


Do you have what it takes to be a bone marrow donor? Every five minutes, someone is diagnosed with blood cancer, such as leukemia and lymphoma. Every ten minutes, someone dies of blood cancer--children, men, and women who could have benefited from a bone marrow donation.

According to DKMS, the world’s largest bone marrow donation center, currently only 30 percent of patients with blood cancer ever find a matching donor that could save their lives. What is involved in becoming a bone marrow donor?

Becoming a bone marrow donor
If you want to be a bone marrow donor, it is best to join a registry. Two registries to consider (and there are others) are the DKMS and the National Marrow Donor Program Registry, which has been renamed the Be The Match Registry. Both offer online registration, which makes signing up easy. DKMS offers the opportunity to people ages 18 to 55, while Be The Match extends the top limit to age 60.

To join a registry, you must meet the age requirement and health guidelines. You will need to complete a short health questionnaire and sign a form stating that you understand what it means to join the registry. A test kit will be sent to you, and you will be asked to provide a swab of cheek cells or a small blood sample and to send the sample in for testing.


The registry is then searched to find a match between you and a patient. If a possible match is found, you will be contacted and asked if you want to proceed. If your answer is yes, you will need to undergo more testing.
You will also attend an information session where you will learn about the donation process and its risks and side effects. If you still agree to continue, you will have a physical exam to make sure it is safe for you to make the donation.

Bone marrow extraction
Bone marrow donation is a surgical procedure that is done under anesthesia. Some donation centers use local anesthesia while others use general. Once you have received the anesthesia, a surgeon will make several small incisions in your iliac crest, which is the back part of the hip bone. A hollow needle is inserted through the incisions into the bone to withdraw the marrow. The incisions are small enough so they do not require stitches.

The surgeon will extract about 1 to 2 pints of marrow, which is 2 to 5 percent of the amount of marrow in the body. (Bone marrow restores itself within four to six weeks.) The procedure takes about 60 to 90 minutes. Once the surgery is over, you will be moved to a recovery room until you wake up, and then to a hospital room. You will be sent home once you fully recover from the anesthesia. Most people go home late the same day or stay overnight.

Side effects of bone marrow donation include soreness and/or pain in the hip area and feeling tired. Most donors return to their normal routines within a few days. Possible complications may include infection of the incision sites, which can be treated with antibiotics, and reaction to the anesthesia. These are rare occurrences. The National Institutes of Health reports that “life-threatening complications for all marrow donors have been rare; there were 13 reported in 4,800 [0.27%] analyzed marrow donations.”

The risks associated with being a bone marrow donor are very small, while the risks associated with having leukemia or lymphoma are not. Individuals who are interested in learning more about becoming a bone marrow donor can contact one of the registries, Living Donors Online!, or their local hospital for more information.

Be The Match registry
DKMS bone marrow donation registry



There are actually two ways to donate. The process described in this article is only used in about 20% of donations. 80% of donations are now Perpheral Blood Stem Cell (PBSC) donations. With this procedure donors are given a series of injections (usually over 5 days) of a drug that stimulates the bone marrow to create extra blood forming cells in the blood stream. On the fifth day, the donor is placed on an apheresis machine (think of giving platelets) which takes the blood from one arm, strips out those extra cells, and then returns the remaining blood components to the other arm. The process generally takes about 4-5 hours. The most common side effect with the PBSC procedure is feeling like you are coming down with a cold, i.e. fatigue, muscle aches, bone aches. These symptoms are from the build up of extra cells in your system and generally cease fairly quickly after the donation.