donate life, donating blood

Donate Life Month: How Donating Blood And Bones Helps Kids Fight Cancer

When you think of ways you can help kids with cancer, chances are that donating blood for transfusions appears near the top of the list.

But the list is full of other similar ways to offer support as well. Bone marrow, cord blood, and even bone can be donated to help pediatric cancer patients.

In fact, those four—blood, bone marrow, cord blood, and bone—can be lifesavers for these kids. That’s why spreading the word about donation is so important.

Blood Donation Basics

Why Do Kids With Cancer Need Blood Transfusions?

Blood—including platelets and red blood cells—is very important for kids with cancer. Their body’s bone marrow simply cannot make enough blood on its own sometimes during chemotherapy.

Bone marrow contains stem cells that can become different types of blood cells: red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets, the National Library of Medicine explains.

Blood transfusions help keep kids’ hemoglobin levels up and keep their platelet counts at safe numbers.

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Which Factors Impact Blood Donation?

Blood type is a key factor in blood donation. Each person’s blood is one of eight different types:

  • A (positive or negative)
  • B (positive or negative)
  • AB (positive or negative)
  • O (positive or negative)

Blood types are generally inherited. They are determined based on which antigens—substances that can cause an immune system response—are present, the American Red Cross explains.

Some components of blood donation aren’t based on type. Packed cells—the red blood cells—are type-specific. So, your donated blood can only go to someone with a compatible blood type. Platelets are not type-specific, so they can go to anyone who needs them.

Cord Blood And Bone Marrow Matter

Why Do Kids With Cancer Need Cord Blood Or Bone Marrow Transplants?

Bone marrow and cord blood pretty much have the same indications. It’s kids who need a bone marrow transplant.

That’s mainly going to be your kids with ​resistant or recurrent leukemia, and some types of lymphoma who can’t be treated with conventional chemotherapy. They can’t use their own marrow because that’s where the disease is. They’re having to rely on somebody to donate bone marrow or cord blood that matches theirs.

Umbilical cord and placenta blood contain a large amount of blood-forming cells, explains the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA).

During a cord blood or bone marrow transplant, a child’s sick cells—which are killed by chemotherapy or radiation making their own bone marrow not work—are replaced with the healthy donor cells.

How Does Cord Blood Donation Work?

Some parents choose to donate their child’s cord blood. At the time of delivery, the blood is collected and stored in a bank. Information about the blood is then put into a registry and made available for someone who has been listed for transplant.

The HRSA has more information on how to go about donating your baby’s cord blood.

How Does Bone Marrow Donation Work?

The first place we go when a kids needs a bone marrow transplant is to family members. We look at siblings, because a sibling is going to be the best match.

If your brother or sister is not a match, then we would do a search on the national registry. We look to see if there are people out in the world with the same HLA typing who could be potential bone marrow donors for that child.

Once you receive the kit, all you do is swab the inside of your cheek. That’s all it takes to get put on the bone marrow registry.

Which Factors Impact Bone Marrow Donation?

To be considered a match, your human leukocyte antigen (HLA) tissue has to match the patient’s.

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If you’re considered a potential match, you’ll go in for a physical exam to check for any health issues that would eliminate you from being able to donate. The goal is to find the best-matched, healthiest donor.

If the donor and recipient are not near each other, it’s not an issue with bone marrow. Marrow can be harvested, frozen, and shipped.

We’ve even had kids who received bone marrow from Germany and France because their donors popped up on the international donor registries.

The Nuts And Bolts Of Bone Donation

Why Is Bone Donation Important For Kids With Cancer?

Kids who have sarcomas—cancerous tumors in connective tissue, like bone—sometimes have a part of the affected bone removed. So, bone banks allow these kids to get replacement bone.

Kids and young adults tend to get sarcomas in areas where their bones are still growing rapidly, such as in their knees, thigh bones, or shin bones, says the American Cancer Society.

Donor bone comes from deceased people who registered as donors. Most of these donors tend to be young people who died in accidents or from sudden illnesses, says the Musculoskeletal Transplant Foundation.

Donating tissue and bone makes such a huge impact and is a great way to give back.

For blood donation, contact your local Red Cross for more information.

If you’re interested in registering for marrow donation, visit the National Marrow Donor Program website. You can also find a registry event near you or have a registry kit sent to you.

Anisa Hoie
I've been a nurse for nearly 32 years, mostly taking care of kids with cancer. My job is to give the kids and their families a personal touch while they go through treatment.

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