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When Your Brother or Sister Has Cancer: A Guide for Teens

  • Posted: 12/26/2013

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Becoming a Stem Cell Donor

Why Do Some Cancers Need Bone Marrow or Stem Cell Transplants?
What Are Stem Cells?
How Transplants Work
Who Can Be a Donor?
Thoughts From Teens Who Were Donors
What If I'm Asked To Be a Donor?
What If I'm Not a Match?
What happens during the transplant?
What If the Transplant Doesn't Work?

In the section on Cancer Treatment we listed bone marrow transplantation (BMT) and peripheral blood stem cell transplantation (PBSCT) as possible cancer treatments. Only some children with cancer get these treatments. If your sibling is going to receive one of them, you may find it helpful to read this section. Otherwise, you can skip it.

Why Do Some Cancers Need Bone Marrow or Stem Cell Transplants?

Sometimes very high doses of chemo and/or radiation therapy are used to treat cancer. These treatments destroy cancer cells but also wipe out good cells, like stem cells.

What Are Stem Cells?

Stem cells make the blood cells needed to carry oxygen to all the parts of the body (red blood cells), fight infection (white blood cells), and prevent bleeding (platelets). Most are found in the bone marrow - the spongy material that fills the inside of bones. Some are also found in the bloodstream.

How Transplants Work

Healthy stem cells collected from a brother or sister are transplanted into the sibling with cancer. The stem cells travel to the bone marrow and make new red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. These new cells help your brother or sister recover from the cancer treatments.

Who Can Be a Donor?

A stem cell donor can be a brother or sister or a volunteer (from the National Marrow Donor Program®). Stem cells can also be collected from the patient's own body prior to cancer treatment and stored for later use.

Facts about donors:

  • A donor is a person whose stem cells match those of the person with cancer. Not everyone is a match.
  • A patient's brother or sister is more likely to match than someone who is not related.
  • In one out of four cases, a brother or a sister is a good match.
  • When no one in the family is a match, the medical team can look for a volunteer donor from around the world.

Thoughts From Teens Who Were Donors

  • "I was scared. No doubt about it - the thought of being a donor made me nervous 'til I knew what was going to happen."
  • "I didn't feel like I had a choice until my parents said it was up to me to decide if I wanted to do this or not."
  • "I felt my big brother and my whole family were counting on me for this to work. I am glad that it did!"

What If I'm Asked To Be a Donor?

If you agree to be a donor, the doctor will do a special blood test to find out whether you are a match for your brother or sister. The test will show whether your stem cells are a good match or not.

What If I'm Not a Match?

"I was so disappointed that neither my sister Heather or I were a match for our little sister Taylor who has cancer. No one blamed us - but it was still hard. Now the doctors are trying to find a match from other donors."
- Caitlin, age 13

You may be tested and find out that you are not a match. You may feel disappointed or that you are letting your brother or sister down. It's important to know that it's not your fault if you are not a match. While it's natural for your family to feel down, no one should be upset with you.

Don't be afraid to ask questions about anything that you don't understand or feel comfortable about. Write down some of your questions:







"The doctor told me I was a match for my brother Chris. My mom said it was my choice - I did not have to be a donor if I didn't want to. But even though I was kind of nervous, I wanted to do it. Chris's doctor met with us to explain what would happen. I hope this will help my brother."
- Amber, age 15

"It didn't hurt as much as I thought it would to be Jada's donor. Before I knew it, I was playing softball again. My advice to other kids who want to be donors is to ask questions - lots of them. It would have helped me to be more prepared. I really didn't know what to expect."
- Anthony, age 16

What happens during the transplant?

For a bone marrow transplantation (BMT), the doctors collect stem cells from your bone marrow. Before the doctor collects the stem cells, you will get medicine to help you fall asleep. Then the doctor will put a needle into your hip bone to collect the bone marrow. You won't feel pain from the needle because you will be asleep. Afterwards, you may be a little stiff or sore for a couple of days at the place where the needle went in.

For a peripheral blood stem cell transplantation (PBSCT), the doctors collect stem cells from your blood. A doctor will take blood from you, usually through a vein in your arm. Your blood will go through a machine that removes the stem cells. Then your blood is put back into you. The stem cells are stored and later given to your sibling through a transfusion.

What If the Transplant Doesn't Work?

"I turned out to be a match for my brother David. The bad news was that the transplant didn't help my brother. I felt like I had really let him down. But David told me not to feel bad about it. He told me how much it meant to him that I even gave it a try."
- Jason, age 15

No one can guarantee that the transplant will make your sibling get better, but the chance to help your brother or sister can be very rewarding. It can help you feel more involved. However, it can be difficult if the transplant doesn't work. Know that it wasn't your fault. You did what you could, and no one should blame you.

What about other questions that I have?

Ask any questions that you have. Doctors, nurses, and social workers can all help you. So can your parents. Your family can also get more information from the National Marrow Donor Program®. It is an organization that keeps a list of volunteer donors and transplant centers. Call 1-800-MARROW-2 (1-800-627-7692) or go to