How Blood Donations Help Cancer Patients

January 2, 2024

There have been many scientific breakthroughs when it comes to the fight against cancer. From research to diagnostics to treatment, battling cancer today looks vastly different than it did 50 years ago. However, there is one essential component to most cancer treatments that cannot be recreated in a lab or replicated by a pharmacist: blood.

With approximately six blood products needed every minute to treat a cancer patient, about 25 percent of the U.S. blood supply is used in the fight against cancer – more than any other disease. And patients, physicians, hospitals, and more need our blood donations because less than 3 percent of the eligible adult population in our country donates blood each year. Here is what you need to know.

What It Means to Donate Blood

There are eight different blood types: A-positive (A+), A-negative (A-), B-positive (B+), B-negative (B-), AB-positive (AB+), AB-negative (AB-), O-positive (O+), and O-negative (O-). Depending on your blood type, how the donations are used and what they are needed for can change daily. Although, known as a “universal donor,” O- blood is almost always in demand.

Today, a pint of blood can be broken up into components that can help treat various conditions. These components are often known as blood products:

  • Whole Blood is the most common and well-known type of blood donation. It can be used in a whole transfusion or be separated into other blood products and is typically used during traumatic blood loss or surgery.
  • Red Blood Cells (RBCs or erythrocytes) are produced in bone marrow, carry oxygen and carbon dioxide throughout our bodies, and give blood its color. It is usually used for blood loss, blood disorders, and anemia.
  • Platelets (thrombocytes) are cell fragments that stick to the lining of blood vessels to stop or prevent bleeding, also known as clotting. Also made in bone marrow, they are used in cancer treatments and organ transplantation.
  • Plasma is the liquid part of blood that contains red and white blood cells, platelets, and vital proteins. It helps maintain blood pressure and is commonly used to treat burn patients and bleeding disorders.
  • Cyro (Cryoprecipitate Antihemophilic Factor) is part of plasma that is abundant with different clotting factors and is used to help prevent and control bleeding, especially with diseases like hemophilia.

These blood products have different lifespans, with plasma having a shelf life of up to one year and platelets only lasting about five days. This is part of why consistent blood donations are so important.

Blood Donations for Cancer Patients

Depending on the type of cancer, donated blood products may be used differently. For those who have blood cancer, such as leukemia or lymphoma, the disease attacks the bone marrow in the body, which can hinder healthy blood production. These patients may receive two to three weekly transfusions during treatment to help maintain their strength and the functioning of their organs.

There are also types of cancer that can cause blood loss from internal bleeding, like colon or other gastrointestinal cancers. Colon or stomach cancer patients may receive one or two blood transfusions during treatment if needed.

Additionally, blood products may be needed due to cancer treatment. A side effect of chemotherapy is damage to the bone marrow, and cancer patients may receive donated blood cells or platelets to help. Surgery can also cause blood loss, especially if it is complex with a tumor located near an artery or vein.

How to Donate Blood

Whether or not someone you love is fighting cancer, the truth is that someone – adult or child – needs a blood product every 2 seconds. And choosing to donate blood can not only change a life, it can save a life. If you are interested in donating a blood product, there are different eligibility criteria, wait times between donations, and other factors for each component. To learn more and schedule a donation, visit the American Red Cross.

And if you are a cancer survivor and wondering if you can donate, the answer is maybe. If your cancer has been successfully treated over 12 months ago with no recurrence, you are eligible for donation. Lower-risk cancers, like some skin cancers, do not require a year’s waiting period. However, if you’ve ever had leukemia, Hodgkin’s Disease, or other blood cancers, you are not eligible to donate.