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Bone marrow transplants

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This page tells you about bone marrow transplants, which are used as a treatment for some types of cancer. There is information about

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

About bone marrow transplants

Bone marrow transplant is a way of giving very high dose chemotherapy, sometimes with whole body radiotherapy. This treatment aims to try to cure some types of cancer, such as leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma.

The bone marrow is the spongy substance inside your bones which makes all your blood cells. High doses of chemotherapy drugs kill off your bone marrow. So doctors can take bone marrow from a donor or from you and store it before you have the chemotherapy. If you have bone marrow from a donor it needs to closely match your own. You and the donor will have tests to make sure that the bone marrow is as similar to yours as possible.

Collecting the bone marrow

You have a general anaesthetic. To remove the bone marrow, the doctor puts a needle through the skin into the hip bone (pelvis). The bone marrow is sucked out through the needle into a syringe. To get enough marrow, the doctor usually has to put the needle into several different parts of the pelvis. Occasionally, the doctor uses the chest bone (sternum) as well. You will have about two pints (one litre) of bone marrow removed. The marrow is then frozen until it is needed.

When you wake up, you will have up to 6 puncture sites covered with plasters (band-aids). You usually have to stay in hospital for 1 to 2 nights. This makes sure you have recovered from the anaesthetic. You may also need a blood transfusion. You will feel a bit sore and bruised for up to a week and will need to take painkillers.

Having the bone marrow

After you have had the high dose chemotherapy and perhaps whole body radiotherapy, you have your donor's or your own healthy bone marrow into your bloodstream through a drip. The bone marrow cells then find their way back to your bone marrow and start to make blood cells again.

 

 

What a bone marrow transplant is

Bone marrow transplant is a way of giving very high dose chemotherapy, sometimes with whole body radiotherapy. This treatment aims to try to cure some types of cancer, such as leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma. Because you can have higher doses of chemotherapy with this treatment, there may be a better chance of curing the cancer than with standard treatment.

The bone marrow is the spongy substance inside your bones which makes all your blood cells. High doses of chemotherapy drugs kill off your bone marrow. This means you can't make any blood cells. So doctors can take bone marrow from a donor or from you before you have the chemotherapy. They freeze the bone marrow. This is called a bone marrow harvest.

After you have had the high dose chemotherapy and perhaps whole body radiotherapy, you have your donor's or your own healthy bone marrow into your bloodstream through a drip. The bone marrow cells find their way back to your bone marrow. Then you can make the blood cells you need again. This treatment is called a bone marrow rescue. This is because bone marrow is given back to you to rescue you from the effects of your high dose treatment.

A transplant using donated bone marrow is called an allograft. A transplant using your own marrow is called an autologous transplant. Autologous bone marrow transplants are not often used now. 

Stem cell transplants are used more commonly than bone marrow transplant these days. You can find information about stem cell transplants in this section.

 

Bone marrow from a donor

If you have donated bone marrow it needs to closely match your own. A brother or sister is most likely to be a close match. Sometimes, if you don't have a brother or sister (a sibling donor) who is a match, you can have marrow from a donor who is not related to you but whose bone marrow cells are similar to yours. 

There is information about how bone marrow is matched in the question and answer section.

 

Having a bone marrow harvest

Before your bone marrow is taken you will have a general anaesthetic. To remove the marrow, the doctor puts a needle through the skin into the hip bone (pelvis). The bone marrow is sucked out through the needle into a syringe. To get enough marrow, the doctor usually has to put the needle into several different parts of the pelvis. Occasionally, the doctor uses the chest bone (sternum) as well. You will have about two pints (one litre) of bone marrow removed. The marrow is then frozen until it is needed.

When you wake up, you will have up to 6 puncture sites covered with plasters (band-aids). You will feel a bit sore and bruised. This can last for up to a week. Your doctor or nurse will give you some painkillers to take.

You usually have to stay in hospital for 1 to 2 nights for a bone marrow harvest. This makes sure you have recovered from the anaesthetic. You may also need a blood transfusion.

 

More about bone marrow transplants

There is information about having a transplant in this section. 

If you would like more information about anything to do with bone marrow transplants, you can phone the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040. The lines are open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. You can also send the nurses a question. They will be happy to help.

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Updated: 12 July 2013