Questions to Ask: Stem Cell Transplants for Blood Cancers

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Stem cell transplants offer unique possibilities for treating multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, Hodgkin lymphoma, leukemia, and other disorders. You and your doctor will decide if a stem cell transplant is right for your particular type and stage of cancer. Here are 12 important questions you may want to ask:

1. Is stem cell transplantation a good choice for me?

Ask your doctor where you are in the treatment process and what typical next steps may be. For multiple myeloma and some relapsed non-Hodgkin's lymphomas, a stem cell transplant using your own cells is now the treatment of choice. For some fast-growing cancers, or if a transplant with your own stem cells has failed, donor stem cell transplants are a good option.

2. What are the risks and benefits of the different types of stem cell transplants?

If you are using your own stem cells, you need to know how healthy they are and what your chances are of a good outcome. If you will need donor cells, you have to consider how and where you will find a good match. Your doctor can also tell you about the possibilities of your body rejecting or reacting against donor stem cells, and potential treatments.

3. How many of these procedures has your team done?

Make sure that the hospital you are considering is a stem cell transplant center, and that both your doctor and other team members are experienced.

4. If I am using my own stem cells, how will I feel after my cells are harvested?

Your doctor can tell you what to expect. Some people have flu-like symptoms from the medicines given before their blood is drawn.

5. Where will we find a donor or umbilical cord blood if we need to?

Ask how the hospital finds a match and how long the search typically takes.

6. Would I be in the hospital or would this be outpatient?

Many patients using their own cells can recover at home with proper precautions. Your doctor can tell you whether this is a possibility for you. Patients using donor cells will be in the hospital for several weeks.

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7. What will happen after my stem cell transplant?

Find out what precautions you will need to take to guard against infection in the first month. You’ll also want to know how to deal with feeling tired and weak right after the transplant. Ask your doctor if you will receive transfusions and special nutrition.

8. What about side effects?

Ask your doctor about likely side effects, including flu-like symptoms, nausea, and fatigue. You will also want to learn which complications you may be at risk for. Find out if you will need drugs to prevent rejection of the donor cells and to fight bacteria, fungi, and viruses.

9. How long until I can go back to my normal activities?

For the first few weeks, it’s likely that you won’t feel up to doing much. Your doctor can help you develop a plan for gradually getting back into your work, family, and exercise routines. Most patients, after a full year with minimal complications, can return to their regular schedule.

10. Will I recover faster with a transplant using my own stem cells?

This is usually the case, but your doctor will recommend the type of transplant you need. If you had a transplant using donor stem cells, they will grow in (engraft) more slowly.

11. How long before I know if the transplant was successful?

Your doctor’s office will schedule regular checkups to monitor you for complications. In most cases, it takes about two months for the body to produce healthy blood cells once again.

12. What if the transplant fails?

You may need additional chemotherapy, radiation, and possibly another stem cell transplant. Together, you and your doctor can decide what treatment is best for you.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Arnold Wax, MD on May 29, 2012

Sources

SOURCES:

American Cancer Society: "Stem Cell Transplant."

National Cancer Institute: "Understanding Cancer Series/Stem Cells."

Medscape: "Hematopoietic Stem Cell Transplantation."

Leukemia & Lymphoma Society: "Blood and Marrow Stem Cell Transplantation." Rochester, N.Y., 2010.

Memorial Sloan Kettering: "About Stem Cell Transplantation."

Nelson Chao, MD, MBA, professor of medicine and immunology, Duke University School of Medicine.

Linda Burns MD, professor, department of medicine – hematology, oncology, and transplantation Office, University of Minnesota Medical School.

© 2012 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

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