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Donating your stem cells to a relative

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If you’re reading this, it’s most likely because someone in your family needs a stem cell transplant to treat a blood cancer or blood disorder. This also means that you could be able to donate your own blood stem cells to them. Although you may have already decided that you want to help, remember the choice is yours and nobody should pressure you into saying yes.

Before you go ahead with further tests to see if you’re a match, it’s a good idea to find out more about what’s involved. Our webpages provide information on what a stem cell transplant is, the treatments involved, potential side effects and your relative’s long-term recovery.

Our Donating stem cells to your relative booklet also has more information on what to expect if you decide to donate.

How likely am I to be a match?

Sibling transplant – You will normally be tested first because a fully matched sibling (brother or sister) donor is the preferred option for patients. Siblings are the people most likely to be a perfect match for their brother or sister because they share the same parents. You have a 25% chance of being a perfect match. If you aren’t a close enough match to be able to donate, Anthony Nolan will search all possible donors worldwide for a suitable match. 

Haploidentical transplant – In certain situations, your relative’s transplant team may consider using stem cells from a family member that’s a half match. This is called a haploidentical transplant. Siblings have a 50% chance of being a half match, while parents are always a half match for their children, and vice versa. This gives a much better chance of finding a suitable donor.

More information on how we test for matches and the different types of stem cell transplant can be found in our understanding transplants section.

What happens if I’m a match?

If you’re a suitable match for your relative and you’re happy to donate your stem cells, the transplant centre also needs to make sure you’re fit and well enough to donate.

Depending on your situation, it might not be medically safe for you to donate. The transplant centre will talk to you about this in more depth.

It can be upsetting to learn that you’re unable to donate when you want to help. Try to remember the doctors make their decision based on what’s best for you and what’s best for your relative. If you have any concerns at all, you should discuss them with your relative’s medical team.

How do I donate my cells?

You will donate your stem cells in one of two ways. Most people donate through a process called peripheral blood stem cell collection (PBSC). Your blood will be passed through a small tube into a machine that collects the stem cells, and then returns the rest of the blood to the body.

Around 10% of donations are given as bone marrow. This involves a small surgical procedure, using a needle to collect bone marrow from your pelvis under general anaesthetic. 

You can learn more about the donation process on our donor page.

Will I need to donate again?

You may have to donate more cells to your relative at some point, as they may need something called a donor lymphocyte infusion (DLI) – a ‘boost’ of cells to make sure the transplant is working as well as possible. A DLI could also be an option if their original condition has come back.

What if I’m not a match?

This can be disappointing and worrying news, but even if you can’t donate, it’s likely that there are other options available to your relative. It’s important to not blame yourself – there wasn’t anything you could have done to be a better match for your relative.

If no related match is available, the transplant centre will usually get in touch with us and we’ll search for an unrelated match to donate to your relative. We’ll look through our register, searching all potential donors in the UK and overseas.

If you feel you would like to do something to help, there are plenty of other ways to get involved. You might want to encourage more people to join the Anthony Nolan register, help organise a patient appeal on behalf of your relative, or raise some money for Anthony Nolan through an event.

More information on ways you can support is available on our donor page.

Information published: 26/11/18
Next review due: 26/11/21

Related links

Donate your stem cells

What is a stem cell transplant?

Finding a donor

Patient Information Forum – Trusted Information Creator