Shannen Doherty, who has spoken publicly about her breast cancer diagnosis and treatment over the past few years, recently revealed that she’s about to have surgery—and she’s “banking” her own blood for it.
“My doctor had me bank some blood for my upcoming surgery,” she captioned a photo on Instagram of herself and a phlebotomist from the American Red Cross. “Mars P was patient with me and didn’t even roll his eyes at my anxiety over the needle size. He was patient, kind and really good.”
“As I sat there banking blood for myself, I asked him about some of the people also donating…especially the ones with TVs,” she continued. “So two of them come every two weeks and donate platelets which takes two hours. Another girl comes as often as allowed to donate blood. To say I’m moved by the generosity of people is an understatement. I’m vowing that as long as I’m cleared in the future, I will start donating.”
Doherty didn’t provide any other details about her upcoming surgery, but she has been in remission since April 2017. In early April of this year, Doherty said on Instagram that she’s “staying positive” after a post-cancer tumor scan came back “elevated.” However, she stressed that she’s still in remission. “Just means I get monitored and another test,” she explained. “But even after that call, I’m staying positive and taking stock of my life.”
If you need blood as a result of surgery, you can get a transfusion from donated blood or “bank” your own ahead of time just in case.
When you undergo any surgery, your doctor will do what they can to limit your blood loss. But sometimes you may need a blood transfusion to make up what you’ve lost. Donated blood is thoroughly tested to make sure it’s as safe as possible for transfusion, but they still carry small risks for complications, such as transfusion reactions or infections. So, in some cases, patients prefer to use their own blood (aka autologous donation), should they need a transfusion.
This probably happens more often than you realize. It’s “fairly common for planned surgeries that are expected to be uncomplicated,” Jayesh Mehta, M.D., a hematologist and oncologist at the Robert H. Lurie Cancer of Northwestern University at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, tells SELF, such as hip replacement surgery and heart surgery.
A breast cancer patient may have breast surgery, but that doesn’t usually involve a large loss of blood, Jack Jacoub, M.D., a medical oncologist and medical director of MemorialCare Cancer Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, Calif., tells SELF. But, if someone had a genetic disposition linked with their breast cancer, doctors may recommend that they have additional risk reduction surgery, like removing the ovaries or uterus, which could involve more notable blood loss. “That may be significant enough to warrant a transfusion,” Dr. Jacoub says.
If you want to do analogous blood donation, you’ll need your doctor to write an order to have your blood drawn first, Ross Herron, M.D., chief medical officer of the Red Cross West Blood Services Division, tells SELF.
Then, you can take that order to a community blood center or the hospital where you’ll have your surgery and have your blood collected, David Oh, M.D., chief medical officer at Hoxworth Blood Center, University of Cincinnati, tells SELF.
Once you arrive, you’ll probably have your vital signs and temperature taken and have to provide a short medical history before you actually have your blood drawn, Dr. Herron says. If you go to a community organization like the Red Cross, your blood will be tested for markers of infectious diseases like hepatitis and HIV before it’s sent to the hospital where you may use it, he says. (If you do test positive for any of these, it doesn’t mean you can’t use your blood—it just needs to be quarantined from other blood that’s been drawn to prevent a potential contamination, Dr. Herron explains.)
You’ll have to carefully time your banking procedure so that your body has time to recover without letting your blood sit around too long before surgery.
“It takes some time for your body to make up for the cells that were collected, so donation is often discouraged with less than a week prior to the surgery date,” Dr. Oh says. But blood can only be stored for so long. Donated red blood cells can be stored for up to 42 days, Dr. Oh says. So you may be able to have your blood taken anywhere from six weeks to five days before your surgery, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
It’s generally recommended that you donate between one to two units of blood, Dr. Mehta says. (One unit is 525 milliliters.) If you donate two, you’ll probably do the donation in two separate appointments spaced out by one to three weeks to allow the blood in your body to replenish itself, he says.
So, this isn’t something you can do for urgent, emergency surgeries. It also means that you can only use up to two of your own units of your own blood during a transfusion. “If it’s complex surgery that requires a lot of blood, this is not possible,” Dr. Mehta says.
The blood is then stored in a blood bank and kept handy while you undergo surgery. If you need the blood, you’ll receive it via transfusion, just like you would if you were having it from an outside source, Dr. Mehta says. But if your blood isn’t used during or after your surgery, it’ll be tossed. “It is estimated that only half of the blood collected as autologous is actually transfused to the patient because it may not be needed,” Dr. Oh says.
Although banking your own blood comes with a bit of extra hassle, it might make perfect sense for your specific situation. So, if you know you have an upcoming surgical procedure and you’re curious about banking your own blood, talk it over with your doctor.