Q&A: How your blood could help a cancer patient

Donated blood is in short supply. That’s a problem for many people with cancer.
photo of a person in an upholstered chair with a medical mask on and her arm out. Medical tape and tubes are attached to her arm, and the tubes lead to a bag filled with a red substance, which is held in two hands of a person wearing medical gloves whose body is mostly out of frame
Blood donors, like this woman, offer a critical resource for people with cancer. Photo by FatCamera / Getty Images

Most people don’t think much about the state of their local blood supply, but it’s often top of mind for people who have cancer. An ongoing shortage of donated blood is prompting blood donation organizations to put out the call for blood donors.  

In this conversation with Dr. Sandhya Panch, a hematologist and medical director of transfusion at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, we take a look at how blood supply shortages affect people with cancer, the different types of blood donations and how you can help:

Why is there a shortage of donated blood?

There are a lot of reasons, including COVID surges, holidays and snowstorms that added to existing shortages. We have had to ration the amount of blood products we’re giving to patients. For some patients, this directly impacts their care and for some, not so much. More recently, we have experienced some supply chain issues from donation centers.  

How can community members help cancer patients who need blood products? 

Find out how to become a donor by visiting the website for the Red Cross (enter your ZIP code to find a list of nearby blood drives). People in the Seattle area can learn more on the Bloodworks Northwest website. 

In the first two weeks of June, we had a critical platelet shortage, which placed us on high alert. There just weren't enough donors available. Unlike other products, you can’t just bring in blood products across state lines; there are regulations around these sorts of transportation logistics. Typically we rely pretty heavily on our local supply.

Sometimes we need to ration platelets to ensure the patients who are experiencing more severe internal bleeding can receive them. That can mean that we have to decide to give half-units of platelets to some patients with low blood counts but no active bleeding and reserve full units for patients who need them the most.

How much blood does Fred Hutch go through each month?

On average, our patients with cancer use 500 units of red blood cells and 350 units of platelets each month.  

What are the different kinds of blood donations?

For the most part, blood donors contribute red blood cells and platelets.

What are blood platelets?

Platelets are blood cells that help blood clot. People with cancer can have low platelet counts. Platelet donation for people with cancer has dramatically decreased deaths due to bleeding. 

Why do people with cancer need platelets?

People with cancer need platelets and red blood cells and occasionally white blood cells, which are more difficult to collect, to restore their blood count to healthy levels or to fight infections. 

headshot of Sandya Panch
Dr. Sandhya Panch, a hematologist and the medical director of Transfusion Services at Fred Hutch, explained how important blood donors are to people with cancer. Photo courtesy of Sandhya Panch

A lot of cancer cells originate in the bone marrow and prevent the production of normal cells so you can develop profound anemia or low platelet count, which results in decreased ability to prevent bleeding.  

In addition, certain types of cancer can impact your spleen or liver. These organs grow in size and chew up normal cells. So it’s not just a production problem, but a destruction problem.  

Does Fred Hutch collect blood?  

Fred Hutch does not accept blood donations directly. Bloodworks Northwest or the local American Red Cross center collects blood. Bloodworks Northwest is our local community blood donation center. Fred Hutch gets up to 80% of our blood products there. Bloodworks Northwest is among the few blood centers that collect white blood cells from donors, too, depending on patients’ needs.

Is the same process used to collect blood cells and platelets?  

The processes are similar. Collecting red blood cells is easier. It involves a needle stick and takes about 20 minutes, then you go to the break room and hydrate. Platelets are collected via apheresis, a process by which you collect blood through a vein in one arm and return everything but the platelets back to the patient. This takes about three hours. You can watch a movie or read a book to pass the time.

Donating blood makes some people feel woozy. Are some types of blood-product donations easier to tolerate than others?

Donating platelets can be a good option because it doesn’t take out as much volume as whole blood donation does. You can ask your local blood center about donation options.  

In April 2022, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance became Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, an independent, nonprofit organization that also serves as UW Medicine’s cancer program.

Bonnie Rochman is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. A former health and parenting writer for Time, she has written a popular science book about genetics, "The Gene Machine: How Genetic Technologies Are Changing the Way We Have Kids—and the Kids We Have." Reach her at brochman@fredhutch.org.

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