Skip to Content

NorthShore’s online source for timely health and wellness news, inspiring patient stories and tips to lead a healthy life.

Healthy You

Q&A: Bone Marrow

Monday, April 03, 2017 10:30 AM

Most of us have heard about blood donation or organ donation. Did you know you can also donate bone marrow? Bone marrow donations can help those with life-threatening blood cancers. Jessica Mallek, Donor Programs Coordinator at NorthShore, teamed up with Be the Match® to help break down what bone marrow is and how you can help. 


What is bone marrow and why might a patient need it?
Marrow is the soft tissue inside bones that produces blood-forming cells. Blood-forming cells are immature cells that can grow into red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. Healthy marrow and blood cells are needed to live. However, disease can affect the marrow's ability to function. When this happens, a bone marrow transplant could be the best treatment option. For some diseases, transplant offers the only potential cure.

What types of cancer use bone marrow transplants?
The following diseases are the ones that most commonly benefit from bone marrow transplant:

  • Leukemia
  • Lymphoma
  • Multiple Myeloma
  • Severe Aplastic Anemia
  • Fanconi Anemia
  • Sickle Cell Disease
  • Certain inherited immune system and metabolic disorders

How is the donor's marrow matched to the patient's marrow?
HLA typing (or tissue typing) is used to match patients and donors for marrow transplants.  Chances of finding a match vary by individual based on their tissue type.  A person's tissue type may be common, uncommon or rare. Tissue types are inherited, so patients are most likely to match the tissue type of someone who shares their racial or ethnic heritage.

How do you donate marrow?
Seventy-seven percent (77%) of the time – PBSC –Peripheral blood stem cell donation –is a non-surgical, outpatient procedure called apheresis where the cells are then collected during a procedure similar to donating plasma or platelets. Twenty-three percent (23%) of the time – Marrow donation is a surgical, outpatient procedure that takes place in a hospital operating room. While the donor is under anesthesia, doctors collect marrow from the back of their pelvic bone. The type of donation is determined by the physician as what is best for the patient, and will most likely lead to a successful outcome.

What is it like to be a marrow donor? Is it painful?
There is no pain associated with either donation process. With marrow donation, the donor is likely to experience a sore lower back for a short period of time following the procedure. Most donors will tell you that being a stem cell or bone marrow donor was one of the most rewarding and incredible experiences of their lives. 

Are there any risks that come with donation?
Be the Match® wants to assure donor safety, but no medical procedure is risk free. With marrow donation, a very small percentage of donors experience a complication due to anesthesia or damage to bone, nerve or muscle damage in their hip region. All necessary precautions are taken to ensure the safety and well-being of the donor, and most marrow donors are completely recovered in a short period of time.