Having a transplant for acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL)

High dose (or conditioning) treatment for ALL includes high doses of chemotherapy. You might also have radiotherapy or targeted cancer drugs, or both.  

The main aim is to destroy any remaining leukaemia cells. But it also kills the stem cells that make blood cells in the bone marrow. This means you need a way of replacing (transplanting) the stem cells that have been destroyed. In ALL you usually have stem cells from someone else (a donor).

This page is about having high dose treatment and an infusion of stem cells. For information about:

  • what a transplant is
  • the types of transplant
  • how stem cells are collected
  • the side effects of having a transplant

Mini transplant

Your doctor might recommend that you have lower doses of chemotherapy as part of your transplant. And you may not have radiotherapy. This is called reduced intensity treatment and is part of a mini transplant (reduced intensity transplant).

It might be used for older people and those who are not fit or well enough to have high dose treatment. The lower dose chemotherapy reduces the number of stem cells in your bone marrow rather than destroys them all. It means that you generally have less severe side effects compared to high dose chemotherapy.

Having high dose treatment

You have high dose treatment before your transplant of stem cells. This is also called conditioning treatment. 

You have the chemotherapy drugs through a tube put into a major vein in your chest (a central line). These drugs go into your bloodstream and travel around your body. 

You usually have high dose chemotherapy for about 5 or 6 days.

Diagram showing a central line

Total body irradiation

Depending on your treatment schedule you might have radiotherapy to your whole body. This is called total body irradiation (TBI). You have TBI to help kill any leukaemia cells left behind after chemotherapy.

You usually have TBI after high dose chemotherapy. But just before your stem cell transplant.

Planning TBI

First you have a planning session to create a treatment plan. This takes about an hour, but it can vary slightly between hospitals.  

You have a CT scan and the radiographers take several measurements. Once the scan is complete your radiographer makes two small permanent marks on your pelvis. They use these marks to help position you in the same place when you go for your treatment.  

During this session, you might have a very small dose of radiotherapy. This is a test dose to help with the planning of your treatment.

Your treatment sessions  

You might have TBI twice a day for 3 or 4 days, or as a single treatment. For these sessions the radiographers help you to lie or stand in the correct position. This can take up to half an hour. You have treatment for 10 to 15 minutes on both sides of your body.

Having the stem cells

You have your matched donor stem cells (allogeneic transplant) after you finish the high dose treatment. You have these through a drip into your central line or a thin tube in your arm (cannula). It's like having a blood transfusion and usually takes a couple of hours at the most. 

Photograph showing a stem cell transplant

In some hospitals you might have the stem cells in the day care unit rather than as an inpatient on the ward. You are admitted into hospital if you develop side effects. You go to the day care unit every day for blood tests and to check how you are. Having part of your transplant treatment as an outpatient is becoming more common.

Blood count recovery and hospital stay

The stem cells move through your bloodstream and back into your bone marrow. This helps the bone marrow make healthy blood cells again. This recovery of blood cells is called engraftment. 

You have regular blood tests to check when your bone marrow starts to make new blood cells.

To support you through your transplant you have other drugs through your line. For example:

  • medicines to relieve a sore mouth, diarrhoea and sickness
  • antiviral and antibiotics to treat and prevent infection
  • platelet transfusions if the number of platelets in your blood are low
  • blood transfusions if your red blood cells are low

Your nurse can also take blood from your central line for tests. 

Being in isolation

After the high dose treatment you have extremely low numbers of blood cells for some time. This means you are at very high risk of picking up infections.

You are usually in a single room in the hospital ward to help protect you from infection. These rooms have special filters. They help trap bacteria that might be in the air that could cause infection. 

Your in a single room until your bone marrow has started to make blood cells again and your counts have come up. This can take between 2 and 4 weeks. 

You can have visitors, but they are sometimes limited to one or two each day. Your family and friends shouldn't see if you if they are unwell. Or if they have been in contact with anyone with an infectious illness.

Your nurse may suggest that family and friends contact you before visiting to make sure you feel up to it. 

Before your visitor enters the room they must wash their hands thoroughly. They might have to wear protective clothing (apron and gloves). They may also have to leave things like coats and bags outside your room during the visit. Your nurse will explain what they need to do. 

You might have to follow a special diet including foods that are unlikely to give you an infection. 

Coping

Staying in a single room in hospital can feel lonely and people often get bored easily. Some people find it frightening. It can help to talk to the nurses about your worries. 

Taking in some of your personal things can make the room feel more homely. You can also take in your mobile phone, laptop, tablet or music. This can help the time to pass and you can keep in touch with your friends and family.

You can call the Cancer Research UK nurses to talk about any worries you have about having a transplant. The freephone number is 0808 800 4040 and the lines are open Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm.

Possible side effects of transplants

The side effects of having a stem cell transplant are caused by high dose treatment and radiotherapy. These treatments lower the number of blood cells. Side effects include:

  • an increased risk of getting an infection
  • tiredness and lack of energy
  • increased risk of bleeding
  • sickness and diarrhoea

Stem cells from a donor can cause a reaction called graft versus host disease (GvHD) Open a glossary item. This happens if the donor's stem cells attack some of your own cells. 

Last reviewed: 
20 Jul 2021
Next review due: 
20 Jul 2024
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  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. Please contact patientinformation@cancer.org.uk with details of the particular issue you are interested in if you need additional references for this information.