Stem cell transplant

To treat some cancers like leukaemia and lymphomas, you might need a higher than normal dose of chemotherapy or radiotherapy. This high-dose treatment will also destroy the stem cells in your bone marrow. These will need to be replaced - this is called a stem cell transplant. The word ‘transplant’ sounds serious but you won’t face this procedure alone.

What are stem cells?

Most cells have a specific job to do but stem cells are extremely clever. Think of them like the blank tile in a game of Scrabble or the Transformer of cancer treatment.

Basically, they have the ability to turn themselves into any other kind of cell in your body, be it muscle, blood or brain. Stem cells can divide to repair and replace damaged tissues – so doctors have been able to harness their ability and use them to treat cancer. 

What is a stem cell transplant?

You might hear different names for this treatment, which can get confusing. Some people call it 'high-dose treatment with stem cell support', 'peripheral blood stem cell transplant' or 'bone marrow transplant'. But they all mean the same thing.

Chemotherapy or radiotherapy destroy damaged blood cells and replace them with healthy stem cells. The healthy cells might be removed from your blood and saved before treatment, or taken from someone else.

Why do I need a transplant?

Doctors use stem cells to fight cancers which affect white blood cells, like leukaemia and lymphoma. They transplant - or transfer - them to a new part of the body to:

  • Stop cancer coming back
  • Treat cancer that has not responded to other treatment
  • Destroy cancer cells that might still be there after you've had a stem cell transplant.

Why would I have someone else's stem cells?

Your doctor may suggest using stem cells that come from someone else – a donor – as they don’t contain cancer cells. Their healthy cells can attack and destroy the unhealthy blood cells in your body. 

To increase the chance of the transplant being successful, your doctor will need to find a donor who has similar tissue to you. The person most likely to be a good match is a brother or sister, but some people can be given stem cells from a person not related to them.

How is a stem cell transplant done?

You'll have an operation in the hospital where three things happen:

  1. Stem cells are collected from your blood or bone marrow, or from your donor’s
  2. You then have the high-dose treatment of chemo or radiotherapy to destroy abnormal cells
  3. After the treatment, the healthy stem cells are put into your body through a drip into your vein. These stem cells will produce new blood cells.

How will I feel after the operation?

You might feel lonely as you’ll need to stay in hospital for a few weeks, probably in your own room and with not many visitors. This is because your immune system will be low and you’re more likely to get infections. 

Staying in touch with family and friends by phone, email and social media can help you cope. Talking to other people who have been through the same treatment can also be helpful. If you’re feeling low, contact CLIC Sargent, as we can help. You aren’t alone and there is lots of help out there to help you get through it.

Updated March 2018, next review due 2021.