Blood transfusions are needed when a person is low in components of their blood such as red blood cells (cells that carry oxygen to the tissues of the body) or platelets (cells that help blood to form clots when tissues are injured). These blood components may be lower than normal because of severe blood loss, or if the body is unable to produce sufficient amounts. If you have a blood cancer such as leukemia, lymphoma, or myeloma, you will likely need blood or blood product transfusions throughout your treatment
In cancers that affect the bone marrow, normal production of healthy red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets is often decreased. The crowding out of your blood producing cells by the cancer cells causes this. In many cases, blood cancer patients have low cell counts before they even begin treatment for their disease.
Treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy can also cause a decrease in your blood cell counts. Unfortunately, cancer treatments cannot tell the difference between cancer cells and healthy cells. So, while the therapy is killing the leukemia or lymphoma cells in your marrow, it is also killing blood producing stem cells as well.
Following treatment for your blood cancer, your blood cell counts may be low for several weeks. The lack of sufficient red blood cells, or anemia, will make it hard for your body to deliver oxygen to the organs and tissues that need it. Low platelet counts, or thrombocytopenia, will make it difficult for your body to stop bleeding once it begins. Decreased white blood cells counts can lead to infections.
Complications from low platelets and red blood cells can be prevented with an infusion of donated blood, or transfusion. In fact, it may be necessary for you to receive a blood transfusion to live.
Blood transfusions in North America and most countries are very safe. Donated blood is tested and screened for many infectious diseases before it is given to patients. However, it is not possible at this time to say blood transfusions do not have any risks. Over the years, scientists have come up with new testing techniques to improve detection of viruses in donated blood.
There is also the possibility that you may have a reaction from your blood transfusion. Signs of a transfusion reaction are:
- Fever, chills
- Shortness of breath
- Allergic-type symptoms such as rashes, or itching
- Pain in the sides or back
- Pain at the IV infusion site
- Dark colored or red urine
- Nausea and vomiting
- Chest pain
While some transfusion reactions are short lived and easily treated, others can be very serious or life threatening. For this reason, it is important to let your nurse know if you feel “different” or “weird” during your transfusion, even if it seems silly or you can’t put your finger on what has changed.
Summing It Up
As a result of bone marrow invasion of cancer, or of the treatment for that cancer, almost all leukemia, lymphoma, and myeloma patients will need a blood transfusion at some point along their journey. While the risk of contracting a disease from a blood transfusion is slim in most developed countries, there is still the potential for complications. It is important to understand that, in many cases, the benefit of receiving a donated blood product outweighs the risk.
If you have concerns or questions about blood transfusions in your specific situation, ask your healthcare provider.
Gobel, B. Bleeding. In Yarbro,C., Frogge, M., Goodman, M., Groenwald, S. (eds). (2000).Cancer Nursing: Principles and Practice 5th ed. Jones and Barlett: MA. pp. 709-737.