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    Stem Cell Transplants

    A stem cell transplant (also called a bone marrow transplant) is where a doctor extracts damaged stem cells (blood-forming cells in the bone marrow) and replaces them with healthy cells from a donor (allogeneic) or a patient's own cells (autologous).

    Doctors often combine stem cell transplants with chemotherapy or radiation, which are likely to damage the bone marrow. Stem cell transplant is typically an option for children only if other treatments aren't successful.

    • Autologous stem cell transplant uses healthy blood stem cells from your own body to replace your diseased or damaged bone marrow. This is only an option if your body is producing enough healthy bone marrow cells.
    • Allogeneic stem cell transplant uses healthy blood stem cells from a donor to replace your diseased or damaged bone marrow. A donor may be a family member, friend, or someone you don't know.

    Determining if you are a candidate for transplant

    Stem cell transplants carry a high potential risk for patients. Although transplants have cured thousands of patients with cancer, they are not the right approach for everyone.

    You may not be eligible for a transplant if you have other major health problems or if your body cannot withstand the treatments used to prepare for the transplant (chemotherapy, radiation).

    The risks of stem cell transplants have decreased significantly over the years and will likely continue to decrease due to advances from ongoing research, making them an option for more and more patients. Even so, new drugs and therapies may be a better treatment option for you.

    Your doctor will consider many factors to determine if you are a good candidate for a stem cell transplant, including:

    • Your general health and existing medical conditions
    • The type and stage of cancer
    • Prior treatment history
    • The likelihood that your cancer will respond to the transplant
    • The availability of a suitable donor (including your own stem cells)

    Recovery

    Side effects immediately following a stem cell transplant are rare and generally mild.

    You may be given antibiotics to prevent infections while your blood cell counts are low. This may include a combination of anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, and anti-viral drugs. Transfusions of red blood cells and platelets are often needed until the bone marrow starts working and new blood cells are being made by the transplanted stem cells. Patients' blood cell counts start returning to normal within two to six weeks after transplant.

    Except for graft versus host disease, which only happens with allogeneic transplants, the longer-term side effects from autologous and allogeneic stem cell transplants are very similar. Problems may include stomach, heart, lung, liver, or kidney problems. You might also go through feelings of distress, anxiety, depression, joy, or anger. Adjusting emotionally can be challenging due to the length of time you feel ill and isolated from others. Support from family and friends is essential to get you through the challenges during this time.

    There are also peer support opportunities for people with cancer. Through our partnership with Imerman Angels, patients can connect one-on-one with a mentor who has experienced the same type of treatment. We also offer a free online support community where you can connect with others with your diagnosis who have undergone similar treatments.

    Graft-versus-host-disease

    Graft vs host disease (GVHD) is a condition that might occur after an allogeneic transplant. In GVHD, the donated cells view the patient's body as foreign and begin attacking it.

    There are two forms of GVHD. As an allogeneic transplant recipient, you might experience one form, both forms, or neither.

    • Acute graft versus host disease might occur within weeks after your transplant. It may develop in your skin, liver, or gastrointestinal tract. Many patients are successfully treated with immunosuppression steroid medicines.
    • Chronic graft versus host disease can occur within weeks or several years after an allogeneic transplant. It occurs in the skin, liver, mouth, lungs, gastrointestinal tract, neuromuscular system, or genitourinary tract. Long-term immunosuppressive medicines and other medicines to prevent fungal, bacterial, and viral infections are generally prescribed. The treatment regimen for chronic GVHD can take many months to years.

    Other helpful resources

    There are several organizations dedicated to providing information, resources, and support to transplant patients. For a list of these trusted organizations, view our Stem Cell Transplants Resources page.

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