Every three minutes, someone in the United States is diagnosed with a blood cancer. For patients with leukemia, lymphoma, or other marrow and immune diseases, a bone marrow transplant may be their best and only treatment option.

However, only 30 percent of patients have a fully matched donor in their family, which means they depend on bone marrow donations, through programs such as Be the Match, to save their life.

An infographic on cells important in bone marrow donations.

What Is Bone Marrow?

Bone marrow is a soft, spongy tissue inside bones that creates blood-forming cells. These cells, also known as immature cells or stem cells, will grow into red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. Once mature, the blood cells and platelets leave the marrow and enter the blood stream.

For someone who has blood cancer, the disease affects the production and function of the blood cells, like fighting infections. Healthy bone marrow and blood cells are needed to live, which is why bone marrow donations are vital.

The Bone Marrow Transplant Process

When a patient receives a bone marrow transplant, which is a process similar to a blood transfusion, their unhealthy cells are replaced with the donor’s healthy ones. Once the cells find their way to the marrow, they begin to grow and produce healthy red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets.

How You Can Help

If you want to help the 70 percent of patients who don’t have a match in their family, the first step to take is join a donor registry like Be the Match. Joining is simple and requires you to provide a cheek cell sample, which is done by swabbing the inside of your cheek. The registry will then take the sample to compare specific protein markers, known as human leukocyte antigens (HLA), with HLA markers of patients who need a bone marrow transplant.

Matching HLA markers is much more complex than matching blood types because there are many markers that make a person’s cells unique. The cells need to be closely matched or else the healthy donated cells won’t have a chance to grow inside the recipient’s marrow. A close match also reduces the risk of complications following the transplant.

Potential donors may never be identified as a match or they might be one of a number of potential matches. Regardless, it is important to stay committed to the process because someone may depend on you for a lifesaving bone marrow donation.

For more information on becoming a bone marrow donor, visit bethematch.org.

Dr. Nima Dayani, www.nycendodontics.org