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Why Blood Transfusions for People with Cancer Are Necessary

Blood donations help support life-saving treatments, such as chemotherapy. A hematologist-oncologist and transfusion medicine specialist explain how you can help.

Every two seconds, someone in the U.S. needs a blood transfusion. While most people are considered eligible to donate, studies show that around 3% actually do.

Even if you’ve never donated before, there’s a good chance you’ve seen a blood drive and you know it’s important. But why is it such a mainstay in the world of healthcare?

Who Blood Donations Help

Blood donations save the lives of many, including those who’ve suffered traumatic injuries, transplant patients, and new moms delivering babies, explains Julie Karp, MD, transfusion medicine specialist and medical director of Jefferson’s Blood Donor Center.

In many cases, blood donations also support necessary treatment. And blood must be donated, as it’s not a product that can be manufactured.

People battling cancer – particularly those undergoing chemotherapy – are a prominent population in need of blood transfusions. According to the American Red Cross and American Cancer Society, they use one-quarter of the nation’s blood supply.

Why Cancer Patients Are in Significant Need

Both cancer itself and cancer treatment can impact blood supply and blood cell production, says Gina M. Keiffer, MD, Jefferson Health hematologist-oncologist.

“Not everyone with cancer needs blood transfusions,” says Dr. Keiffer. “Broadly speaking, cancers that originate in the bone marrow, such as leukemia, lymphoma, and multiple myeloma hinder blood cell production the most. This is because cancerous cells can crowd the space where new blood cells are usually made.”

Treatments too can worsen the problem, especially when directed at cells in the bone marrow – or when covering a large area of the body, continues Dr. Keiffer. While it’s much less common, this is why some breast, lung, prostate, colon cancers, and so on, may also require blood transfusions for safe treatment. And, in rare, cases, cancer of an organ can spread to the bone marrow.

For cancer patients, not only do transfusions build their blood supply back up, but they can also reduce the side effects of treatment, explains Dr. Keiffer. “Some patients may need only one or two transfusions, while others may need to come in weekly. Most blood transfusions can be done right within a cancer infusion suite by trained oncology nurses.”

How Low Blood Counts Impact the Body

Blood transfusions, in general, reduce the risk of potentially severe complications that can occur due to a low blood count. There are three main types of blood cells*, adds Dr. Keiffer, and here’s what can happen when each of them is low:

  • When red blood cells are low, it can impair the body’s ability to deliver oxygen from the lungs to other organs, which can lead to fatigue and shortness of breath. If severely low, it can be fatal.
  • When platelets are low, people are subject to severe bleeding issues, such as spontaneous bleeding, anywhere in the lungs, brain, gastrointestinal tract, etc.
  • When white blood cells are low, the risk for infection is heightened – not only in terms of exposure to viruses, but also to bacteria that naturally occur in the body. (These are rarely needed for transfusion.)

*Blood cells are suspended in the liquid portion of blood, known as plasma. Plasma donations and transfusions are common.

Donor Eligibility

There are restrictions in place for the safety of both the donor and recipient, however, most people can donate. At Jefferson’s Blood Donor Center, donors are required to complete a questionnaire, with questions about travel, health conditions and medications, as well as a mini physical exam to determine eligibility, explains Dr. Karp.

Some people believe they can’t donate blood because they were told they were ineligible years ago, notes Dr. Karp. “This is a common misconception, as donor eligibility rules do change. If you were ineligible 10 years ago, I would encourage you to try again! It may be different this time.”

Additionally, studies support that you can still donate blood if you’ve been vaccinated for COVID-19. If you’ve been COVID-positive, most blood banks request you wait a period of time since you last experienced symptoms before you donate.

Our top question for everyone, says Dr. Karp, is always, “How are you feeling today? If today is not your best day, it’s not the day to donate blood.”

Is It Safe to Donate During the Pandemic?

The simple answer is yes.

In terms of exposure level, blood banks are likely much lower risk than many other environments we’ve gotten used to stepping foot in again, like the grocery store or our favorite restaurant, says Dr. Karp.

We schedule by appointment only to avoid crowds and ensure social distancing, continues Dr. Karp. “We also follow all the necessary precautions we’ve been taking since the start of the pandemic, including masking, increasing space in the donor and waiting room areas, and sanitizing all frequently touched surfaces.”

The nation is amid an unprecedented blood shortage, but the fact is we are always in need of blood and always will be, says Dr. Karp. “Blood banks, like our hospitals, have faced their fair set of challenges during the pandemic, but we’re doing everything we can to function normally and get everyone the blood they need as quickly as possible.”

“For many patients, the ability to get transfusions is essential for survival,” added Dr. Keiffer. “Every little bit helps.”

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