How to donate bone marrow

Everything you need to know about the National Marrow Donor Program.

Caroline Roberts Digital Editorial Intern
Caroline Roberts writes articles and notifications for CNET. She studies English at Cal Poly, and loves philosophy, Karl the Fog and a strong cup of black coffee.
Caroline Roberts
4 min read
blood cells

Blood cancer claims thousands of lives per year.

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Over 50,000 people die every year from blood cancer in the US. Many of these deaths are preventable, because the patients could have been treated with a life-saving bone marrow transplant. Many people with blood cancer do not have a bone marrow match in their family, but the National Bone Marrow Registry manages a database of millions of potential matches. Donating bone marrow is safe, easy and free, so here's why you consider signing up now.

How to sign up for the National Bone Marrow Registry


Be The Match coordinates a national database of potential bone marrow donors.

Be The Match

The National Marrow Donor Program operates an organization, Be The Match, that serves as the largest and most diverse bone marrow registry in the world, with 20 million members. 

Almost anyone in the US can join, and last year alone it performed 6,200 transplants. Besides guiding patients through the entire bone marrow transplant process, Be The Match educates healthcare professionals, conducts research and advocates for key legislature. 

There's a fairly simple registration process for Be The Match -- first, you'll want to make an account. You'll then fill out a medical history form to ensure that you are eligible. Next, you submit a DNA sample to determine who you can donate to. Be The Match has events with cheek-swabbing kits for you to get tested on the spot. On its website, you can search your zip code to find an event near you, or it can also mail you a kit if you are unable to go.

Joining the registry is not a guarantee that you'll have to donate -- it could be years, or never, before you're contacted as a match for someone in need.

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Why is bone marrow donation important?

Every year in the US, almost 200,000 people are diagnosed with a blood cancer like leukemia or lymphoma. Every nine minutes, one of those people passes away. Bone marrow transplants are an effective treatment and give countless people a second chance at life, but 70% of patients who are diagnosed do not have a matching donor in their family, and 3,000 people die every year because of that.

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The way doctors determine who is the right match for donating bone marrow to a person who needs it is by looking at your human leukocyte antigens type. HLA are the proteins that your body uses to determine which cells in your body are safe and which are foreign invaders.

HLA type is inherited, so you siblings or parents might be a good match if you need a bone marrow transplant. But because that's not always the case, doctors need to find the closest match, and that's where you come in. By registering with Be The Match, doctors can find out if you have the same HLA type as the patient they are treating.

Who can donate bone marrow?


To donate marrow, you first swab your cheek and submit it to the Be the Match.

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Be The Match has guidelines for registry to protect the health of everyone involved. You must be between the ages of 18 and 60, live in the US and be willing to donate to any future matches. You must also meet certain health guidelines. If you have conditions such as severe arthritis, HIV/AIDS or Hepatitis C, you cannot donate bone marrow. If you have concerns about how any health issues or medications may impact your ability to donate bone marrow, you should check with your doctor. 

Does it hurt?

TV shows and movies often portray bone marrow extraction as a horrific process, but you can rest easy knowing that this isn't accurate. Over 75% of procedures extract peripheral blood stem cells, which doesn't require surgery. You simply take a prescription to increase the number of blood stem cells in your system, then a few days later a doctor will perform a procedure similar to getting your blood drawn. For the remaining surgical procedures, the patient is under anesthesia and doesn't feel a thing.

Read more: How to donate blood, even if you're squeamish

The procedure to donate bone marrow and medical exams is free for donors.

donating blood

If you're selected to donate bone marrow, the process will likely feel similar to getting blood drawn.

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How else can I help?

If you have a condition preventing you from donating bone marrow or have already joined the registry and still want to help, there are still a number of actions you can take. You can donate financially to Be The Match, volunteer for a bone marrow drive, help with legislative advocacy or raise funds for the organization. 

Through Be The Match, you can also donate your baby's umbilical cord, a safe and free procedure that can also treat blood cancers. 

There are also other organizations that will help you join the bone marrow registry, like Gift of Life and DKMS

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives. 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.