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Having a transplant

Find out about what happens when you have a bone marrow or stem cell transplant for chronic myeloid leukamia (CML).

Stem cell and bone marrow transplants are a way of giving very high doses of chemotherapy. Sometimes you have whole body radiotherapy too.

This 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. So after the high dose treatment you have a donor's stem cells or bone marrow back through a drip into your bloodstream.

The 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. You might have whole body radiotherapy at the beginning or 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

How you have stem cells or bone marrow

After you have finished your high dose treatment, you have your donor's stem cells or bone marrow back through a drip. This is called day zero.

The cells flow through your central line into your bloodstream. You might need another small plastic tube in your vein called a cannula, if the cells don't flow easily.

You are awake while you have the drip. It's like having a blood transfusion and usually takes a couple of hours at the most.

Photograph showing a stem cell transplant

Side effects

Having a transplant has possible side effects. 

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. 

You stay in the 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 and 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.

Recovery

It takes a long time to get over intensive treatment such as a stem cell or bone marrow transplant. At first you may have mixed feelings about going home. Your nurse will give you numbers to call if you have any questions or worries and you’ll have regular follow up appointments.

Your central line usually stays in for a little while after treatment finishes. Your nurse can use it for blood tests at your follow up appointments. And some people still need regular platelets or blood transfusions.

It’s likely that you will get at least one infection after your transplant. This means you’ll need to stay in hospital again. This can be quite upsetting for you if you haven’t been home for long. Let the team know if you are struggling to cope, as there are ways that people can help you.   

You’ll start to feel stronger and more active again as time passes. But it can take a while to get back to normal. It might be as long as a year before you really feel you are on the road to recovery.

Last reviewed: 
23 May 2019
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