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Learning About Stem Cell Transplant

What is a stem cell transplant?

Stem cells are special cells in the bone marrow that make red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets, and more stem cells. A stem cell transplant is also known as a bone marrow transplant. It replaces damaged stem cells with healthy ones.

A stem cell transplant may be needed to treat a disease, such as aplastic anemia or leukemia. The transplant may be done using your own stem cells or donor stem cells.

Having the transplant is a serious decision for you and your treatment team. A stem cell transplant is a long and difficult procedure. Many things can affect the outcome, such as the type and stage of the disease, as well as your age and health. There are serious risks, including death. But when the transplant works, it can increase the chances of remission of the disease.

How is it done?

The stem cell transplant procedure has several stages. Parts of the treatment may be done in a hospital, and others may be done in an outpatient centre. The length of time of your treatment depends on how you respond and any problems you may have from the treatment. Your doctor can tell you more about this.

Testing

You will first have tests to make sure that your health is good enough for the chemo and radiation that are part of the procedure. This may take a few days.

Deciding on treatment

After the tests, you and your doctor will look at your test results, the support you can expect from caregivers, and the physical and emotional challenges you will face. Based on these things, you might go ahead with the transplant. Or you might choose some other treatment instead.

There are two types of stem cell transplants:

  • The stem cells come from your own body (autologous). Your blood is sent through a machine that separates stem cells from your blood. The cells are stored until you need them for transplant.
  • The stem cells come from a donor (allogeneic). The donor takes medicine to help him or her make more stem cells. When you're ready for the transplant, the donor's cells are taken out and given to you.

Conditioning

You'll have chemo (and possibly radiation) to destroy all the damaged stem cells. It can take 1 to 2 weeks. You may have side effects, such as mouth sores, nausea, hair loss, and poor appetite. The side effects may last several months. But your doctor can give you medicine to help ease them.

Transplant

In this step, the healthy stem cells are put into your bloodstream. This usually takes 1 to 5 hours. The stem cells travel to your bone marrow. They will start to make new stem cells in 1 to 4 weeks. These cells will then take over the job of making new blood cells.

You may spend up to 4 weeks or longer in the hospital after the transplant. The length of time depends on your disease, your overall health, and any problems you have during the transplant.

Until your body is able to make enough white blood cells, your immune system won't be able to fight infections as well as it used to. Your doctor may give you antibiotics and other medicines. While you're in the hospital, special care will be taken to protect you from getting an infection. Once you go home, you will still need to be careful to protect your health. Your doctor will let you know when it is safe for you to go public places where you could be exposed to germs from other people.

What can you expect after a stem cell transplant?

Your immune system will need time to get back to normal. It can take several years.

You'll need constant care for a while after you are home. For the next 6 to 12 months, you'll see your doctor and have your blood tested often. You may get blood transfusions until you can make enough blood cells of your own. If the stem cells came from a donor, your doctor will check for signs that your body is rejecting the cells. Your doctor will want to see you if you have any sign of an infection.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse call line if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Where can you learn more?

Go to https://www.healthwise.net/patientEd

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