Blood product transfusions for cancer treatment

During a blood transfusion, blood or parts of the blood are given to a person through an IV line placed in a vein. The blood usually comes from another person (donor). Blood and blood products are made up of different parts that perform specific roles and may be used to help treat cancer.

Red blood cells carry oxygen throughout the body. White blood cells are part of the body’s immune system. Their main job is to help fight infections and diseases. Platelets are fragments of blood cells that help with clotting so that bleeding is controlled when you have a cut or bruise. Plasma is the liquid portion of blood that carries blood cells to all parts of the body. Plasma also helps platelets with the clotting process.

Blood is divided into four types: A, B, AB, and O. Blood also has Rh types: positive (+) and negative (–). Any blood products you receive during a transfusion must be compatible with your blood type.

How can blood transfusions help with cancer treatment?

Transfusion of blood and blood parts can be used to treat various problems that cancer sometimes causes.

Cancer can affect the bone marrow – the soft, spongy part inside bones where most of the body’s blood cells are made. When the bone marrow is damaged or destroyed, the body cannot make enough blood cells. Without enough blood cells, the body cannot maintain its normal functions.

Cancer can cause anemia. This condition happens when there are too few red blood cells in the body, which means that your tissues and organs do not receive enough oxygen. Anemia can make you feel tired or short of breath.

Occasionally, certain cancers can cause internal bleeding. This can lead to blood loss that can threaten your health.

Chemotherapy and radiation can lower the number of your body’s healthy blood cells. Surgery to remove a cancerous tumor can cause blood loss. These situations can require transfusions.

Types of transfusions

Depending on your situation, your doctor may recommend one or more blood products as part of your treatment plan. Before receiving any blood products, you will need to have some blood drawn so your blood type can be determined. You will also need to sign a consent form acknowledging the potential risks of receiving a transfusion.

Red blood cell transfusions
These are most often used to treat severe anemia or blood loss. Except in severe blood loss, cancer patients receive “packed” red blood cells without plasma. Each unit takes about two hours to infuse. During that time, nursing staff will be monitoring your temperature, pulse and blood pressure.

Platelet transfusions
These are used if your platelet count is too low, which puts you at high risk of bleeding. A bag of platelets takes about an hour to infuse. As with RBCs, nurses will monitor your temperature, pulse, and blood pressure.

Plasma transfusions
These may be used to supply the blood with more clotting factors to help stop excess bleeding. One unit of plasma is taken from a unit of whole blood and is then frozen at the blood bank. Plasma is thawed when it is needed. This process usually takes one to two hours.

White blood cell transfusions
Due to the severe risks involved, these transfusions are rarely used. If there is a problem with your white blood cells, your doctor may recommend other treatments to help promote the growth of new cells.

Safety information
Strict measures are taken to make sure that donated blood and blood products are safe before they are given to you. To learn more about where donated blood comes from and the process of screening blood, these websites may help:

American Cancer Society, Blood Donation and Transfusion — www.cancer.org/Treatment/TreatmentsandSideEffects/TreatmentTypes/BloodProductDonationandTransfusion/index

American Red Cross, Learn About Blood — www.redcrossblood.org/learn-about-blood

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