Being a Related Bone Marrow or Stem Cell Donor

Giving a loved one a second chance at life is exciting, but preparing yourself for all possible outcomes is important.

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If you have been asked to donate bone marrow or stem cells to a relative, you may experience many emotions. Most related donors are glad to have the opportunity to help a loved one. Nonetheless, related donors have legitimate concerns about how the donation procedure will affect their own health in both the short- and long-term.

Health Issues that May Affect Your Ability to Donate Bone Marrow or Stem Cells

In most cases, the medical procedure used to collect cells for transplant will have a minimal, short-term impact on your health. However, as with all medical procedures, there is a small chance that you may experience side effects that are more severe.

Before you agree to be a donor, you will need a physical exam to determine whether donating is safe for you. Be sure to share with the doctor your complete medical history including illnesses and surgeries you have had in the past, even if you don’t think they are important, as well as any current health conditions.

Tell the doctor if you have a had any of the following medical conditions apply to you:

  • severe arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis
  • severe asthma
  • autoimmune disease such as multiple sclerosis, systemic lupus, chronic fatigue syndrome or fibromyalgia
  • back, hip, neck or spinal problems or surgeries
  • bleeding problems such as hemophilia, aplastic anemia or a history of more than one deep vein blood clot
  • breathing problems such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema, sleep apnea or cystic fibrosis
  • cancer
  • depression or other mental health problem
  • epilepsy
  • heart disease, heart attacks or a history of heart surgery
  • jaundice caused by mononucleosis or cytomegalovirus (CMV)
  • kidney problems
  • liver disease such as hepatitis, cirrhosis or Wilson's disease
  • lyme disease
  • prior organ or tissue transplant
  • pregnancy
  • tuberculosis
  • problems with general or regional anesthesia

Some of these issues will not necessarily exclude you from being a donor, but should be thoroughly discussed with your doctor.

Details about the medical procedure used to collect your cells from is described in the How Bone Marrow and Stem Cells are Collected section of our website.

Emotional Challenges for Related Donors

Although it can be exciting to have the opportunity to give a loved one a second chance at life, it can be stressful as well.

  • Many donors wonder what they can do to make their stem cells better.
  • Some worry that if the transplant is not successful it will be their fault.

There is nothing you can do to make your stem cells stronger or better. Eating right, getting enough sleep, and making sure you are healthy enough to donate your bone marrow or stem cells when the time comes are the most important things you can do.

Even though many factors that determine the success of a transplant are beyond your control, you may still feel responsible for the outcome. This can be a heavy emotional burden.

It can help to discuss your feelings with a counselor or with another person who has been a donor for a loved one. The patient's hospital may have social workers who can help you think through these concerns. BMT InfoNet's Caring Connections Program can put you in touch with other people who have been donors.

Don't ignore your feelings. Feeling nervous, scared, responsible for the outcome or unsure about whether you want to donate is normal. Talking about these feelings with others is important.

Don't Hesitate to Ask Questions

Some donors are reluctant to ask the medical team many questions about being a donor. Everyone is focused on helping the patient get well, and donors sometimes feel selfish asking questions about their own health or seeking counseling if they have doubts or worries.

Explore Possible Outcomes

A very important question that donors often neglect to ask is "Will I save my loved one's life if I donate my marrow or stem cells?"

The answer is maybe.

If you have been selected as the best possible donor, you are giving your loved one a second chance at life.  Even if you are a perfect match, there are many other factors that will determine whether or not the transplant is successful that are beyond your control..

Whether the patient will be cured will depend on the patient’s diagnosis, stage of disease, age, general health and prior treatments. Problems that can arise after transplant such as infection, organ damage or graft-versus-host disease can also impact survival. In some cases, the disease will come back several months or years after transplant.

Many donors assume that a cure is guaranteed if they donate their stem cells and are shocked if the patient develops serious complications or dies.

Be cautiously optimistic when donating marrow or stem cells. Hope for the best, but prepare for setbacks. With luck, your loved one will have many more years of life.

What if I Don't Want to be a Donor?

Sometimes a relative prefers not to be a donor. You may:

  • be concerned about your own health
  • feel pressure from a spouse not to donate
  • have a medical condition that would disqualify you as a donor that you do not want to disclose to other family members

If you are a reluctant donor, discuss your concerns frankly and confidentially with the transplant doctor assigned to you. Ask if the patient has other options if you choose not to be a donor.

The doctor can inform the patient that you are not a possible donor without disclosing the reason why.

(To view this page in Spanish click here)

Next Page: Being an Unrelated Donor

Updated June, 2024