What is a bone marrow transplant?

A bone marrow transplant is medical procedure where a person’s bone marrow stem cells are replaced with a donor’s cells.

Bone marrow is the tissue inside the bones that contains stem cells that will develop into red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets.

Prior to a bone marrow transplant, patients will need to undergo high doses of chemotherapy or radiation to destroy abnormal cells in the bone marrow. This will also work to suppress your immune system so that it won’t attack new cells after transplant.

The goals of a bone marrow transplant are to cure cancer, improve quality of life and/or extending your life.

What are types of bone marrow transplants?

There are two types of bone marrow transplants:

Autologous bone marrow (stem cell) transplant

During an autologous bone marrow transplant, your own healthy blood stem cells replace damaged or diseased bone marrow. The primary advantage of using your own stem cells as opposed to donor stem cells in a bone marrow transplant is to avoid any incompatibility issues between the donor cells and your own cells.

Allogeneic transplant

An allogeneic bone marrow (stem cell) transplant uses a donor’s healthy blood stem cells to replace your diseased bone marrow.

Who is a candidate for a bone marrow transplant?

Your doctor may recommend a bone marrow transplant for patients who have malignant and benign diseases such as:

  • Acute or chronic leukemia
  • Blood diseases such as sickle cell anemia, aplastic anemia or thalassemias
  • Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • Immune deficiencies
  • Multiple myeloma

Risks associated with bone marrow transplants

A bone marrow transplant is a risky procedure that can lead to a variety of complications including:

  • Cataracts
  • Death
  • Graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) - this only occurs in patients who have a allogeneic bone marrow transplant
  • Infections
  • Infertility
  • Organ damage
  • Other new cancers
  • Stem cell failure

Your risk of complications is greater as you get older and your health declines. Your Mercy Health oncology team will discuss the benefits and risks to determine if a bone marrow transplant is right for you.

What to expect during a bone marrow transplant

Your bone marrow transplant will occur after a conditioning process that involves chemotherapy and potentially radiation. The goal of conditioning is to kill cancer cells, suppress the immune system and prepare your body for new stem cells.

During the bone marrow transplant, stem cells are infused into your body. You will be awake during the process and should not experience any pain.

The transplanted stem cells travel to the bone marrow and being to create new blood cells. It may take a month or more for the new cells to be produced to increase your blood count.

If the blood stem cells you are receiving have been frozen and thawed, you will receive a medication to prevent side effects associated with the preservative used to freeze them.

What to expect after a bone marrow transplant

As soon as the new stem cells enter the body, they travel to the bone marrow and begin making new blood cells. In some patients, it takes more than a month for the blood count to return to normal.

Patients may need to be in the hospital a week or longer to be closely monitored after the procedure. Some patients need to be in close proximity to the hospital to allow for monitoring.

You will be under close supervision of your cancer care team in the days, weeks and months after a bone marrow transplant. Your doctor will take frequent blood tests and help you manage any complications associated with the procedure.

It is important to eat healthy, exercise and take care of yourself in the weeks following a bone marrow transplant because you are at higher risk for infection and other complications directly after the procedure.

Results from bone marrow transplants

Some patients will be cured of their blood cancer after a bone marrow transplant, while others may not have positive results.

Your doctor will outline the goals for your treatment to set expectations for your case. In some cases, the cancer may be very challenging to eliminate, so the goal of treatment is to extend your life and improve your quality of life.

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