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Having a transplant

Get information on what happens when you have a stem cell or bone marrow transplant.

Stem cell and bone marrow transplants are a way of giving very high doses of chemotherapy. Sometimes you also have whole body radiotherapy (total body irradiation).

The high dose treatment kills off the cancer cells in the body but also kills the stem cells that make blood cells in the bone marrow.

We need stem cells in order to survive. So after the high dose treatment, you have stem cells or bone marrow through a drip into your bloodstream. These cells make their way into your bone marrow and start to make blood cells again.

Having high dose treatment

You usually have the high dose chemotherapy over about 5 or 6 days. If you are having whole body radiotherapy, you might have it at the beginning or at the end of the chemotherapy.

You have your high dose chemotherapy through a central line. This type of line runs up under your skin to a large vein close to your collarbone.

You can have anti sickness medicines and antibiotics through your central line too. And your nurses can take blood samples from your line.

Diagram showing a central line

Having stem cells or bone marrow

After you have finished all your treatment, you have your stem cells or bone marrow back through a drip. This is just like having a blood transfusion.

The cells flow through your central line into your bloodstream. They then find their way back into your bone marrow. Soon they start to make new blood cells and release them into your bloodstream. You will have regular blood tests to check when your bone marrow starts to make new blood cells.

Photograph showing a stem cell transplant

Being in isolation

Until your bone marrow starts making enough blood cells you are at risk of picking up infections. So you might be moved into a single room in the hospital ward to help protect you. You will stay in this room until your blood counts have come up. This might take a few weeks.

Some centres don't isolate patients having their own marrow or stem cells (autologous transplants) because the risk of infection is relatively low. But patients having donated marrow (allogenic transplants) will often have their own room.

While you are in isolation you can have visitors, but your nurses may suggest that you only see one or two each day. Your friends and relatives should not come to see you if they are unwell, or think they have been in contact with anyone with an infectious disease.

In certain circumstances, some treatment centres treat you as an outpatient straight after your bone marrow or stem cell transplant. You need to attend the hospital daily for blood tests and treatment. But you only have to stay in the hospital if you develop complications. Outpatient transplant treatment is becoming more common.

Coping with isolation

Staying in a single room in hospital can feel lonely. Some people find it frightening. It can help to talk to the nurses about your worries. They can reassure you.

Taking some of your personal things in can make the room feel more homely. Books, photographs and an ornament or two can brighten it up. You can also take in a mobile phone, laptop, electronic tablet or music player to make the time pass more enjoyably and keep in touch with friends and family.

Last reviewed: 
17 Mar 2015
  • British Society of Blood and Marrow Transplantation Indications for BMT 

    British Society of Blood and Marrow Transplantation, 2013

  • Guidelines for selection and HLA matching of related, adult unrelated donors and umbilical cord units for haematopoietic progenitor cell transplantation
    British Society of Blood and Marrow Transplantation, 2012

  • Hematopoietic SCT in Europe: data and trends in 2011
    JR Passweg and others
    Bone Marrow Transplant, 2013

    Volume 48, Issue 9

  • Infection-control interventions for cancer patients after chemotherapy: a systematic review and meta-analysis
    A Schlesinger and others
    The Lancet - Infectious Diseases, 2009

    Volume 9, Issue 2

  • UK Stem Cell Strategic Forum Report
    NHS Blood and Transplant, 2010

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