Stem Cell Transplants: A Lifesaving Treatment for Cancer …

If you have leukemia or lymphoma, you may need a stem cell transplant. These cells help replace cells damaged by the cancer. They also let your body recover faster from intense chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

For some, it may be the best -- or only -- approach.

They grow inside your marrow, the soft tissue of your bones. Theyre also in your blood, as well as blood from umbilical cords.

As they mature, blood stem cells change into threetypes of cells your body needs:

There are two types of transplants. Your doctor will decide which is best for you.

In an autologous (AUTO) transplant, doctors take healthy stem cells from your bone marrow or blood. Theyre frozen and carefully stored. Since they're outside your body, they arent harmed during the chemotherapy or radiation treatments youll need to get rid of your cancer cells.

After your treatment ends, your thawed stem cells are returned to your bloodstream through an IV. Theyll find their way back to your bone marrow.

Once there, they can help your body make healthy blood cells again.

In an allogeneic (ALLO)transplant, you get healthy stem cells from a donor.

Its important that the donors bone marrow closely matches yours. If it doesnt, your body may reject their cells. Your donor might be a family member. You can also get stem cells from someone you dont know.

Before an ALLO transplant, youll get chemotherapy, radiation, or both. This wipes out your own stem cells and gets your body ready for the new ones soon after your treatment is done.

If your doctor cant find a donor,theymay use cells from donated umbilical cord blood. After a baby is born, blood rich in stem cells remains in the discarded cord and placenta. It can be frozen and stored in a cord blood bankuntil its stem cells are needed.

Cord blood is tested before its banked. This lets doctors quickly check to see if theres a match for you. Plus, the pairing doesnt have to be as perfect as it would be from a donor.

If youre being treated with your own stem cells, you may have high-dose chemotherapy first. This can cause side effects. What and how severe they are depend on the dose. You might have:

That doesnt sound great, but advances in cancer treatment can make them easier to live with.

When you get stem cells from a donor or cord blood, theres a risk of something called graft-versus.-host disease. Its when your body fights to get rid of the new cells, or the cells launch an attack against you. It could happen right after the transplant or not until a year later.

Thanks to strides in the matching process in the past decade or so, your odds of having more problems from the treatment are much lower than they used to be.Youll also get medicine after your transplant that can workto keep those problems at bay.

Still, if youre older, it can be harder for you to manage side effects. Also, its more likely youhave another health condition like high blood pressure or diabetes. Your doctor may want you to have a reduced-intensity, or mini, stem cell transplant.

Youll start out with a lower dose of chemo and radiation before you get the stem cells. Its less taxing on your body, and new cells can still grow and fight your cancer.

They sound like special cells that fight cancer. They arent. Theyre cells that advance cancer.

Experts used to think all cancer cells were the same. Now, theres reason to believe that special, fast-growing cancer stem cells keep your disease alive by reproducing.

If thats true, in the next few years, the focus of treatments could shift from trying to shrink tumors to trying to kill this type of cell.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Kumar Shital, DO on July 17, 2020

SOURCES:

MD Anderson Cancer Center: Stem Cell Transplantation.

National Cancer Institute: Stem Cell Transplant.

Linda Burns, MD, vice president and medical director of health services research, National Marrow Donor Program/Be The Match, Minneapolis, MN.

Jack Jacoub, MD, medical oncologist and director of thoracic oncology at MemorialCare Cancer Institute at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center, Fountain Valley, CA.

American Society of Clinical Oncology: What Is a Stem Cell Transplant?

American Cancer Society: Stem Cell Transplant for Multiple Myeloma.

City of Hope: Breakthroughs: Mini Stem Cell Transplant: What Is It and How Does It Treat Cancer?

National Cord Blood Program: Cord Blood Q&A.

Stanford Medicine Ludwig Center for Cancer Stem Cell Research and Medicine: The Stem Cell Theory of Cancer.

Cleveland Clinic: Graft vs Host Disease: An Overview in Bone Marrow Transplant.

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