Myths About Bone Marrow and Stem Cell Donation

Misconceptions About Becoming a Donor

Glow Wellness/Glow/Getty Images

Every four minutes in the United States someone is diagnosed with a blood cancer like leukemia or lymphoma. For thousands of them, stem cell transplants can be a second chance at life. Bone marrow or peripheral blood stem cells can be a part of life-saving therapy. Here, two big misconceptions about becoming a donor are examined.

Myth 1: Individual Donors Don’t Really Make a Difference

Fact: Your willingness to become a donor gives people hope for life.

A transplant may be someone’s only hope for a cure. Your help does matter, and you could be the perfect match.

Close relatives, especially brothers and sisters, are more likely than unrelated people to match, but most people do not have a match in their family. In fact, only about 30 percent of patients who need a transplant have a sibling who matches.

For people with blood cancer, unrelated donors save lives. People of all ages can help the cause, but, since transplants from donors in a specific age range are thought to maximize the odds of success and minimize risks, individuals between the ages of 18 and 44, in particular, are encouraged to consider becoming a donor.

Myth 2: Donation is Excruciatingly Painful

Fact: Donors may have soreness, stiffness or aching for a few days. There are two different types of donation. It’s true that pain is the number one symptom for both types, but the pain is usually described as a soreness or aching, and it generally resolves within a few days.

Potential donors should do their homework to know what is involved, and blood cancer organizations can play an important role in education. For many donors, the pain of the procedure is a minor consideration, in hindsight, according to Be The Match, an organization that helps match marrow donors to recipients.

If you are a good match, you could be asked to donate either bone marrow (BM) or peripheral blood stem cells (PBSC).

  • Bone marrow donation involves taking some of the blood-forming tissue from the soft, inner part of your bone, typically the hipbone. The procedure is done under anesthesia, and soreness sets in when the pain medication wears off. According to the National Cancer Institute, marrow donors may feel sore or stiff in the area where the bone marrow is taken for a few days.
  • PBSC donation involves taking circulating blood stem cells, rather than cells from the bone marrow, so there’s no pain from accessing the bone marrow. But in PBSC, the medication given to boost the number of stem cells in the donor’s circulation can be associated with body aches, muscle aches, headaches, and flu-like symptoms. These side effects generally stop a few days after the last dose of the stem-cell-boosting medication.

Take the Next Steps

For more information about becoming a donor, visit Be The Match and similar organizations walk you through the process step by step, including information for people who have  already been told they are a potential match for someone. If you happen to be African-American, Asian, or multiracial, the experts say it’s hard to find matches in these groups, so the need is great.


Miller JP, Perry EH, Price TH, et al. Recovery and safety profiles of marrow and PBSC donors: experience of the National Marrow Donor Program. Biology of blood and marrow. 2008;14(9 Suppl):29-36.

Bone Marrow Transplantation and Peripheral Blood Stem Cell Transplantation. Fact Sheet. Accessed September 2015.

Continue Reading