Help People With Cancer: Donate Blood and Platelets

March 7, 2017
Nicole Van Hoey, PharmD

Like the heart or lungs, our blood is an essential element of our bodies that is easily taken for granted. Blood carries oxygen throughout the body. At tissues and organs, blood helps exchange nutrients and waste products. The cells that make up blood include:

  • Red blood cells (RBCs): RBCs contain hemoglobin, an iron-rich protein that carries oxygen and gives blood its red color.

  • Platelets: These cells help form clots when we are bleeding. Clotting stops us from bleeding too much from an injury. When platelets are low, serious or life-threatening bleeding can occur.

  • Plasma: This yellow liquid in the blood carries the RBCs, platelets, and cells or proteins, like antibodies, that help fight infections. Cryoprecipitate is the part of plasma that separates as frozen plasma slowly thaws. It contains a higher concentration of blood-clotting proteins than regular plasma. People with cancer do not often need transfusions of this part of blood.

Why blood and platelet donations are needed

Unlike medicine, blood products cannot be made in a laboratory. share on twitter But sometimes, extra blood is as vital to patient care as medicine. People with cancer may need extra whole blood or some portions, like platelets:

  • When cancer or its treatment causes low RBCs, called anemia, whole blood transfusions are used to replace the RBCs. Whole blood transfusions can be used to replace blood lost during surgeries, too.

  • People with cancer may develop low platelets, or thrombocytopenia, when the body’s bone marrow is damaged from some kinds of chemotherapy or from some types of leukemia or lymphoma.

Replenishing blood lost from an injury or chemotherapy requires blood from healthy donors. The American Red Cross organizes public blood collections and stores the blood in banks. In a standard process required by law, all donated blood is tested for blood type (A, B, AB, or O) and Rh type (positive or negative). The blood is also checked for any unexpected red blood cell antibodies that may cause problems for a recipient, as well as for diseases that could spread to recipients.

How to donate blood or platelets

If you’d like to donate blood or platelets, a good first step is to find your local Red Cross blood drive or blood bank where you can  donate. Be sure to bring proper identification, like a driver’s license.

To qualify as a donor, you must be at least 16 or 17 years old, weigh at least 110 pounds, and be in good health. You may not be able to donate if:

  • You take certain medicines. People who take blood thinners may have a waiting period before they can donate. People taking antibiotics for an infection should wait until they are healthy again before donating.

  • You have certain health conditions: People with very high or very low blood pressure, some other heart conditions, or some viruses like HIV or hepatitis, may not be able to donate.

  • You have traveled to some countries: If you have traveled to or lived in countries with high rates of malaria or viruses like mad cow disease, you may have to wait or be unable to donate.

  • You are pregnant: Pregnant women cannot donate. You must wait 6 weeks after giving birth to give blood.

  • You have a history of cancer: People diagnosed with leukemia or lymphoma previously may not be able to donate. People who have had other types of cancer or were treated a long time ago may qualify as donors.

Giving a whole-blood donation usually takes about 10 minutes. Blood is removed from a donor’s vein, usually in an arm, and put into a medical bag.  Side effects are rare. You may receive juice and a snack afterward and should avoid heavy exercises for the rest of the day. Healthy people can donate again after 8 weeks.

You can donate only platelets, too. This process is called apheresis and is slightly different from giving a whole-blood donation. During the platelet donation, blood is removed from one arm, and then a centrifuge separates out the platelets. The rest of the blood then returns to the donor through the other arm. More platelets are collected this way than with whole-blood donation. The collected platelets cannot be stored as long as whole blood, however.

Platelet donation takes 2 hours and can have mild side effects like chills or tingling. Platelet donations can be repeated every 7 days, but most people are limited to 24 donations in a year.  People who are interested in giving platelets should:

  • Avoid aspirin or products that contain aspirin at least 48 hours before a donation

  • Consume extra calcium and fluids before donating

  • Avoid heavy lifting or strenuous exercise immediately after donating

Across the country, every day, there is always a need for more donated platelets and blood of all types. share on twitter Talk with your doctor’s office or local blood donation center to find out more.