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What to Expect From a Stem Cell Transplant

By Judith Sachs
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Arnold Wax, MD

Stem cell transplants have become important weapons in the fight against certain blood cancers, such as multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, Hodgkin lymphoma, and leukemia. A stem cell transplant may help you live longer. In some cases, it can even cure blood cancers.

About 50,000 transplantations are performed yearly, with the number increasing 10% to 20% each year. More than 20,000 people have now lived five years or longer after having a stem cell transplant.

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Here's how it works: The stem cells in healthy bone marrow produce blood cells, including the white blood cells that are crucial to your immune system. Blood cancers themselves damage your bone marrow, and so do chemotherapy and radiation treatments for the cancers. A stem cell transplant lets new stem cells take over from your damaged marrow so your body can produce healthy, cancer-free blood cells.

Your doctor may want to use stem cells taken from your own blood, or stem cells from a donor. If you use your own stem cells, your blood will be drawn when your cancer is not active. If you use a donor's cells, your doctor will first need to find a matching donor. Either way, you will have chemotherapy and/or radiation beforehand. This will kill the cancer cells and destroy your damaged stem cells so the transplanted stem cells can take over.

If you use your own cells, you may be able to have an outpatient stem cell transplant. You need to have no other serious medical conditions, have a caregiver who can monitor you at home, and live within an hour of the hospital. Your home environment must be carefully prepared, and you must wear a mask when going out.

Here's what to expect from the transplant process.

Before the Stem Cell Transplant

  1. You or the donor will get injections of special medicines four or five days before the blood draw. These medicines move blood-forming stem cells from your bone marrow into your bloodstream.
  2. Your blood or the donor's will be drawn. The stem cells from your or the donor's bloodstream will be separated from the rest of the blood and frozen.
  3. You will have "conditioning treatment." This will be either high- or low-dose chemotherapy and/or radiation. Its purpose is to kill the cancer cells and destroy your own stem cells -- destroying your immune system in the process -- so the transplanted stem cells can take over.

During the Stem Cell Transplant

  1. You will have an infusion of the stem cells. You'll sit in a comfortable chair for several hours as the infusion is given through a central line (a surgical port in your neck).
  2. Nurses will monitor you. They will check to be sure you are not developing fever, chills, hives, or a drop in blood pressure.
  3. You might have mild side effects, including headache, nausea, flushing, or shortness of breath.

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