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Bone Marrow Transplants and Stem Cell Transplants for Cancer Treatment

Stem cell transplants -- from bone marrow or other sources -- can be an effective treatment for people with certain forms of cancer, such as leukemia and lymphoma. Stem cell transplants are also used for multiple myeloma and neuroblastoma, and they’re being studied as a treatment for other cancers, too. 

Why do cancer patients consider these transplants? While high doses of chemotherapy and radiation can effectively kill cancer cells, they have an unwanted side effect: They can also destroy the bone marrow, where blood cells are made. 

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The purpose of a stem cell transplant or a bone marrow transplant is to replenish the body with healthy cells and bone marrow when chemotherapy and radiation are finished. After a successful transplant, the bone marrow will start to produce new blood cells. In some cases, the transplant can have an added benefit; the new blood cells will also attack and destroy any cancer cells that survived the initial treatment.  

Understanding Stem Cells

While you may have heard about embryonic stem cells in the news, the stem cells used in cancer treatment are different. They’re called hematopoietic stem cells.

What’s special about these cells? Unlike most cells, these stem cells have the ability to divide and form new and different kinds of blood cells. Specifically, they can create oxygen-carrying red blood cells, infection-fighting white blood cells, and clot-forming platelets.

Most stem cells are in the bone marrow, a spongy tissue inside bone. Other stem cells -- called peripheral blood stem cells -- circulate in the blood. Both types can be used in stem cell transplants for cancer treatment.

Who Is a Candidate For a Stem Cell Transplant or Bone Marrow Transplant for Cancer Treatment?

While stem cell transplants may be lifesaving, they’re not the right treatment for everyone. The process can be difficult and tedious. Since younger people often do better with these treatments, some doctors limit stem cell transplants to those under age 60 or 70. 

Given that the risks can be serious, deciding whether to get a stem cell transplant for cancer treatment is not easy. Your doctor will need to consider your general physical condition, diagnosis, and stage of disease. You’ll need a number of tests to make sure that you’re healthy enough to undergo the procedure. You also need to make sure you understand the potential benefits and risks of stem cell transplants.

Keep in mind that stem cell transplants only seem to be effective in treating specific types of cancer. While they were once used for breast cancer, for instance, experts no longer recommend them. Studies found that they didn’t work better than standard treatments. 

Where Do Transplanted Stem Cells Come From?

Stem cells for a transplant -- whether from peripheral blood cells or bone marrow -- can come from two places: your body or a matching donor’s body.

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