Blood Transfusion and Donation

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Why people with cancer might need blood transfusions

People with cancer might need blood transfusions because of the cancer itself. For example:

  • Some cancers (especially digestive system cancers) cause internal bleeding, which can lead to anemia ([uh-nee-me-uh] from too few red blood cells; see “Red blood cell transfusions” in the next section).
  • Blood cells are made in the bone marrow, the spongy center of certain bones. Cancers that start in the bone marrow (such as leukemias) or cancers that spread there from other places may crowd out normal blood-making cells, leading to low blood counts.
  • People who have had cancer for some time may develop something called anemia of chronic disease. This anemia results from certain long-term medical conditions that affect the production and lifespan of red blood cells.
  • Cancer can also lower blood counts by affecting organs such as the kidneys and spleen, which help keep enough cells in the blood.

Cancer treatments may also lead to the need for blood transfusions:

  • Surgery to treat cancer may lead to blood loss and a need for red blood cell or platelet transfusions. (See “Red blood cell transfusions” and “Platelet transfusions” in the next section.)
  • Most chemotherapy drugs affect cells in the bone marrow. This commonly leads to low blood cell counts, and can sometimes put a person at risk for life-threatening infections or bleeding.
  • When radiation is used to treat a large area of the bones, it can affect the bone marrow and lead to low blood cell counts.
  • Bone marrow transplant (BMT) or peripheral blood stem cell transplant (PBSCT) patients get large doses of chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy. This destroys the blood-making cells in the bone marrow. These patients often have very low blood cell counts after the procedure and need transfusions.

Last Medical Review: 10/07/2013
Last Revised: 10/07/2013