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Bone Marrow Transplants and Stem Cell Transplants for Cancer Treatment

What Happens During the Stem Cell Transplant?

A few days after you’ve finished with your chemotherapy or radiation treatment, your doctor will order the actual stem cell transplant. The harvested stem cells -- either from a donor or from your own body -- are thawed and infused into a vein through an IV tube. The process is essentially painless. The actual stem cell transplant is similar to a blood transfusion. It takes one to five hours.

The stem cells then naturally move into the bone marrow. The restored bone marrow should begin producing normal blood cells after several days, or up to several weeks later.

The amount of time you’ll need to be isolated will depend on your blood counts and general health. When you are released from the hospital or from isolation at home, your transplant team will provide you with specific instructions on how to care for yourself and prevent infections. You’ll also learn what symptoms need to be checked out immediately. Full recovery of the immune system might take months or even years. Your doctor will need to do tests to check on how well your new bone marrow is doing.

There are also variations in the stem cell transplant process being studied in clinical trials. One approach is called a tandem transplant, in which a person would get two rounds of chemotherapy and two separate stem cell transplants. The two transplants are usually done within six months of one another.

Another is called a “mini-transplant,” in which doctors use lower doses of chemotherapy and radiation. The treatment is not strong enough to kill all of the bone marrow -- and it won’t kill all of the cancer cells either. However, once the donated stem cells take hold in the bone marrow, they produce immune cells that might attack and kill the remaining cancer cells. This is also called a non-myeloablative transplant.

What Are the Risks of Stem Cell Transplant for Cancer Treatment?

The main risks come from the chemotherapy and radiation treatment before the stem cell transplant. When they destroy the bone marrow, the body is at risk of infection and uncontrolled bleeding. Even a common cold or the flu can be quite dangerous.

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