Stem cell transplant

To treat some cancers such as leukaemia and lymphomas, a higher than normal dose of chemotherapy or radiotherapy may be needed. This high-dose treatment will also destroy stem cells in the bone marrow, which will need to be replaced.

What is a stem cell transplant?

You might hear different names for this treatment approach, including high-dose treatment with stem cell support, peripheral blood stem cell transplant or bone marrow transplant.

Essentially, they all involve having high-dose treatment with chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy which destroys the stem cells and then replacing the stem cells afterwards. The replacements might be:

  • an autologous transplant: your child’s own stem cells, which have been removed and saved before the high-dose treatment
  • an allogenic transplant: stem cells taken from someone else
The specific details of this treatment vary from one person to another, so the information on this page is meant as a general guide only. Your specialist will be able to give you more information about how your child's treatment will proceed, and any side effects.

When are stem cell transplants used?

Stem cell transplants can be used for a number of different cancers, including some types of lymphoma and leukaemia. It depends on your child’s situation but the aims of treatment might be to:

  • Destroy any cancer cells that might remain after your child’s initial treatment
  • Stop the cancer from coming back (keeping it in remission)
  • Treat cancer that has not responded to ordinary therapy.

How is a stem cell transplant done?

This treatment takes several weeks and your child will need to stay in hospital during this time. It’s a complex procedure, and the doctors and nurses will explain everything that will happen. They will also discuss the possible benefits and drawbacks. Here are the basic steps: 

  1. Stem cells are collected from your child's blood or bone marrow, or from the donor’s
  2. They will then have the high-dose treatment, which destroys their remaining stem cells
  3. After the high-dose treatment, their stem cells that have been stored, or new stem cells from a donor, are put into your child's body through a drip into their vein.

What happens afterwards?

The high dose-treatment received prior to the stem cell rescue will have affected other healthy cells, such as in the mouth or gut, so your child may need painkillers and nutritional support.

While the transplanted stem cells are taking hold, and starting to produce new blood cells again, your child's immunity will be very low and they will be vulnerable to serious infections. They are likely to have a hospital room to themselves, and visitors might be limited to protect your child from infection.

It can be a lonely time, so think about how your child could stay in touch with family and friends by phone, email or through social networks. Talking to people who have been through it themselves can help. And, remember, you can always speak to your care team if your child is struggling or feeling low.

Where next?

Updated November 2017, next review due 2019.