Self-Help Tips From Dr Sarah Brewer

DKMS Dispels Myths About Stem Cell Donation

stem cell donation

Have you put off becoming a stem cell donor because of myths about the procedure? If so, read on. The donation process itself is a lot simpler than you might think, with 90% of donations made via your arm in a similar way to giving blood. The remaining 10% of donations are made through bone marrow collection. Before donation takes place and the stem cells are harvested, your doctor will take you through a medical assessment and explain which type of donation is necessary to help the patient you are a match for. You will be given 4 injections in the days leading up to donation to increase the levels of blood stem cells in your body.

Myth 1: Donating stem cells means losing them forever

Truth: But your blood stem cells will completely replenish themselves within 2-4 weeks of the collection.

Myth 2: Donating stem cells is an invasive process

Truth: Around 90% of all donations are made through a method called peripheral blood stem cell (PBSC), which is similar to blood donation. Blood is passed through a machine that isolates and collects the stem cells from one arm and the blood is then returned to you through your other arm. This is an outpatient procedure that is usually completed in around 4 hours.

Myth 3: Donating bone marrow is painful

Truth: In just 10% of cases, donors will be required to donate bone marrow. It is a one hour outpatient procedure carried out under general anaesthetic via a simple needle in the iliac (hip) bone. Bone marrow is not extracted from the spine, but from the pelvic bone.  This small incision typically heals very quickly and usually you won’t need stitches.

Myth 4: It’s a complicated process to register

Truth: The first steps to register as a potential lifesaver are very straightforward. You order your home swab kit online at You swab the inside of your cheeks and send everything back in a pre-paid envelope for your details to be added to the registry. Worldwide, 35% of those who register do not send their swab kit back – versus 65% that do. It’s really important to send the swabs back oryou are not added to the registry, and therefore cannot be a potential lifesaver.

Myth 5: You need to know your blood type

Truth: While there are similarities in the process, blood stem cell donation is different to donating blood. Blood stem cell donors donate only blood stem cells, rather than blood. Matches are determined by a person’s human leukocyte antigen (HLA) tissue type and not their blood types, and there are thousands of tissue types, and millions of different combinations that exist, so you could be potentially the only match for a person with blood cancer in need of a transplant.

Myth 6: I’m 50, I’m too old to donate

Truth: Anyone between the ages of 17-55 and in general good health can become a potential blood stem potential donor. All potential donors will stay on the register until their 61st birthday and could be asked to donate.

Myth 7: I’m from a black/Asian/mixed ethnic background so it’s less likely my stem cells will be needed

Truth: Finding matching donors is never easy, but it’s even harder for people with a black, Asian or mixed ethnicity as the pool of donors is much smaller. Those in need of a lifesaving blood stem cell donation are most likely to find a matching donor from a similar ethnic background. Currently, in the UK, people with a black, Asian or mixed ethnicity have just a 20% chance of finding their match, compared with 69% for white, Northern European ethnicities.

Myth 8: My blood stem cells will be stored

Truth: Your blood stem cells will never be stored. They last for around 72 hours and are delivered straight to the person in need by a special courier. If the recipient’s body accepts them, the stem cells will start making healthy blood cells. You’ve giving that person a second chance at life  just by lying in bed.

Myth 9: I have a piercing and/or tattoo so I can’t donate

Truth: Having a tattoo doesn’t stop you from joining the registry. If you are identified as a match for someone and you had a piercing or a tattoo within the last four months, you would just need to alert the DKMS team.

Myth 10: I have high blood pressure so can’t donate

Truth: High blood pressure generally does not affect blood stem cell donation if the condition is well-regulated with drugs or through an adapted diet.

 Things you didn’t know about blood cancer

  1. Every year over 30,000 are diagnosed with blood cancer in the UK
  2. Every 20 minutes, someone in the UK is diagnosed with blood cancer
  3. Blood cancer accounts for 9% of all new cases of cancer diagnosed in the UK
  4. At any one time there are around 2,000 people in the UK in need of a blood stem cell transplant.
  5. To be able to register as a potential stem cell blood donor, you must weigh a minimum of 7st 13lbs
  6. 4 out of 10 people in need of a blood stem cell donation in the UK don’t find a blood stem cell donor
  7. Only one in three people with a blood cancer (and in need of a transplant) will find a matching blood stem cell donor within their own family.
  8. There is no single cure. But, a blood stem cell donation from a genetically similar person can offer the best treatment – a second chance at life.
  9. To date, DKMS has registered over 9 million potential blood stem cell donors worldwide, including 500,000 people in the UK.
  10. So far, over 800 second chances at life have been provided by DKMS UK.

Register as a potential lifesaver online at to receive your home swab kit. It takes a few moments to swab. Make sure you return your swab kit in order to go on standby to help save someone’s life. DKMS is a global organisation dedicated to the fight against blood cancer.