If you or a loved one needs a bone marrow transplant, you may be thinking ahead to the recovery process. Each person is different, but you can do a few things to help your recovery go as well as possible.
Eat a good diet.
This will be key to getting your strength back, but it’s not always easy. After a transplant, you may have nausea, vomiting, or a sore mouth, or you just might not be that hungry. Your doctor may give you anti-nausea medication to help with some of those side effects.
If you do feel well enough to eat, go with foods that are high in these vitamins and minerals -- you might be low in them:
- Calcium: This is important for bone strength. Some of the medications you take after a bone marrow transplant may lower your calcium levels. Eating foods like milk, cheese, yogurt, kale, or spinach can help your bones stay strong.
- Phosphorus: Like calcium, this mineral helps keep your bones strong. Chicken, beef, fish, and nuts are high in phosphorus.
- Vitamin D: If you’re on steroid therapy for a while, that can lead to osteoporosis, or bone loss. A daily dose of vitamin D is important for recovery. Not many foods are naturally high in vitamin D, but milk, soy milk, orange juice, and cereals are often fortified with it.
- Potassium: Side effects like vomiting or diarrhea may cause a mineral (or electrolyte) imbalance. Potassium helps your cells work the way they should, helps you keep the right amount of fluids in your body, and helps your blood pressure stay steady. Many fruits and vegetables -- bananas, oranges, peaches, avocados, tomatoes, and sweet potatoes, to name a few -- are good sources.
- Magnesium: This mineral helps your immune system work well, which is important since it will be weak after the transplant. And like potassium, magnesium also helps keep blood pressure in check. Foods like chocolate, milk, nuts, tofu, and spinach have a good amount of it.
Consider supplements. If you don’t feel up to eating, your doctor may recommend supplements. You could take a daily multivitamin, but make sure it doesn’t have iron in it. (If you’ve had red blood cell transfusions, your body probably has plenty.)
You also could try a nutritional beverage supplement.
Stay away from these foods. These can cause trouble when you have a weak immune system:
- Unpasteurized raw milk
- Cheese made from unpasteurized raw milk
- Raw or undercooked eggs
- Raw or undercooked fish
- Raw or undercooked meats
- Deli meat, unless it’s been warmed up
- Food from bulk or self-service bins
Regular activity helps you manage your weight, keeps your heart healthy, and boosts your strength and stamina. Talk with your doctors about what level of exercise is right for you. They may suggest you start slow, like taking regular walks.
Don’t drink alcohol.
After a bone marrow transplant, your liver may not work as well. That can be caused by chemotherapy or medications or by graft-versus-host disease (GVHD). (GVHD happens when you get bone marrow or stem cells from a donor and they see your body as foreign and attack it.) Your liver processes alcohol, so your doctor probably will recommend that you stay away from beer, wine, and other spirits for a while.
Take your medicine.
If your bone marrow came from a donor, your doctor may give you medicine to lower the chances that your body will reject it. This medication makes your immune system weaker so it won’t react to the new cells.
There’s also a chance of infection after the transplant as the new, healthy cells begin to rebuild your immune system. Because of this, you may need to take antibiotics to keep that from happening. Your doctor also may prescribe antifungal, antibacterial, or antiviral medications.
Protect yourself from the sun.
Being out in the sun can make you more likely to have GVHD. Plus, your skin may be sensitive after the transplant. Use sunscreen with SPF 50 and wear long pants and long sleeves, along with a hat, if you go outside.
Take care of your mouth.
Your mouth may be sore or dry after the transplant, so it’s important to take good care of it. Use a soft-bristle brush, and run it under hot water to kill germs before you put it in your mouth. Talk to your doctor before you schedule any dental work, including a cleaning.
Ask about clinical trials.
Researchers are studying whether T cells and a protein called interleukin-22 (IL-22) might help speed up recovery after a bone marrow transplant. T cells are made in your thymus, which can get damaged during chemotherapy and the transplant. Your thymus also doesn’t work as well as you get older.
Because of this, T cells are often the last cells to grow back after a transplant. But the IL-22 protein has been shown to make them grow back faster. Talk with your doctor to see if you might be able to take part in a study about this.
Have an emotional support system.
Bone marrow transplants can have serious physical side effects, such as kidney, lung, heart, stomach, and liver problems. Your doctors can help with those. But the transplant can come with emotional side effects, too.
Lots of hospital visits, medications, and feeling run-down or alone can take a toll. You may find that your emotions range from sadness to anxiety to anger to happiness. Support from family, friends, and your medical team can help get you through your recovery.
You also might ask your doctor about local or online support groups. Talking to people who have gone through -- or are going through -- the same things you are can help.