We are international

Questions and Answers about Stem Cell Transplantation

Listed below are some of the questions frequently asked by people with myeloma who have had or are considering a stem cell transplant. These questions and other concerns should be discussed with the doctor and members of the healthcare team before making any final decisions about the patient’s treatment plan.

Q. Why is a stem cell transplant necessary for a multiple myeloma patient?
A. The transplant procedure allows the patient to receive high doses of chemotherapy to kill more myeloma cells. This therapy is so potent that it destroys all of the bone marrow. Without bone marrow, the body is unable to manufacture blood cells needed to carry oxygen, help blood clot, and defend against infection. Therefore, a stem cell transplant replaces the destroyed marrow, rescuing the patient from the effects of high-dose chemotherapy.

Q. Am I a candidate for bone marrow or peripheral blood stem cell transplant?
A. Medical experts have yet to arrive at a set of fixed guidelines for selecting patients who will benefit the most from a transplant. Increasingly accepted as a part of multiple myeloma treatment protocols, successful transplantation is a function of the patient’s age, general physical condition, stage of disease, and responsiveness to prior treatments. Only the patient’s physician can provide a patient with the best assessment of his or her chances for long-term survival.

Q. Does taking alkylating agents such as melphalan, busulfan, and cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan) reduce my suitability for a transplant?
A. Alkylating agents are one of the most effective ways of killing myeloma cells inside the body. However, their prolonged use – more than 4 to 6 months – will reduce the ability to easily harvest a patient’s stem cells. Therefore, when considering a transplant, a patient should first discuss the total treatment plan to ensure that there are as many short-term and long-term treatment options available as possible. It should be emphasized, however, that collection should ideally be done before using any alkylating agents.

Q. How do I select a transplant center?
A. A transplant is a complicated medical procedure that requires an expert team of doctors, nurses, social workers, psychologists, and allied health professionals who understand the procedure, have performed it successfully many times, and are equipped to respond when medical and emotional problems arise. Today, medical centers that meet these criteria can be found throughout the country. Many of these centers specialize in treating patients with many different types of cancer. To find the one best suited for patients with multiple myeloma, you should talk with your doctor, other multiple myeloma patients, and the International Myeloma Foundation.

Q. What goes on at a transplant center?
A. To understand what goes on at a transplant center, we strongly suggest a visit to one or more centers. Meet with the staff – doctors, nurses, and other members of the multiple myeloma treatment team – and learn more about how they approach a transplant. See the room where your transplant will occur and where you’ll be spending your recuperation time. Find out what part of your procedure will be performed in a clinic or a doctor’s office and what part will be done in the hospital. You should be comfortable with the center before you begin your transplant.

Q. If my doctor agrees that a stem cell transplant is an appropriate treatment for my disease, what can I do now to prepare for the experience?
A. The patient can do a lot to get ready for the transplant. By reading this brochure, a patient has already taken the most important step: learning as much as possible about the procedure. A patient should speak with the doctor, seek out fellow survivors, and read as much as possible, including the publications and newsletters from the International Myeloma Foundation. Patients should ask questions about what they’ve learned and strive to read all the newest information coming from research. We suggest that patients bring a tape recorder or a friend along to the doctor’s office so that they can give full attention to the doctor. Patients should share what they know with family and loved ones so that they will know what to expect – and how they can help in the weeks and months ahead. The doctor will perform a series of tests to confirm that the patient is well enough to tolerate the transplant. All the data gathered on the performance of the heart, lungs, kidneys, and other vital organs will enable the doctor to compare the patient’s health before and after the procedure. In most cases, the patient won’t have to be hospitalized for these tests since they can be performed in the doctor’s office.

Q. What side effects should I anticipate from the transplant?
A. Side effects can be expected from every type of medical treatment, even the use of aspirin. Each patient reacts differently to chemotherapy and other drugs given during the transplant. No two patients share exactly the same side effect profile. Patients should therefore seek a transplant center where the doctors, nurses, and allied health professionals have performed a number of transplants and appear competent to care for each individual myeloma patient’s needs.

Q. What happens during re-infusion?
A. After chemotherapy the patient receives a re-infusion of his or her own stem cells. The stem cells will be thawed and infused into the patient’s catheter either through a syringe or from an intravenous infusion bag. While the re-infusion takes place the patient may feel warm or lightheaded. The chemical used to keep the stem cells fresh has a garlic smell that the patient might be able to taste. The oncologist may re-prescribe or adjust the patient’s medication to make him or her feel more comfortable during this procedure.

Q. Can a patient die from the transplant itself?
A. Every medical procedure carries risk, and a transplant for patients with multiple myeloma is riskier than most. Nonetheless, medical studies have shown that over 95% of patients (usually closer to 99%) survive transplant.

Q. Can the patient relapse after a transplant?
A. Yes. Unfortunately, the majority (at least 50%) of all patients with multiple myeloma experience a relapse 18 to 36 months after their transplant is completed.

Q. I’ve heard a lot about myeloma purging. Can it help?
A. The process of purging removes myeloma cells from peripheral blood taken from the patient’s body prior to transplant. High-dose chemotherapy is used to kill myeloma cells that are within the body. Stem cell selection, or “purging,” is used to remove myeloma cells from the collected stem cells prior to the transplant. The goal of this strategy is to reduce the number of myeloma cells both within the patient’s body as well as in the peripheral blood that will be re-infused into the patient. Recent evidence indicates that this technology is not effective in myeloma. Therefore, very few centers currently use stem cell purging for patients with myeloma.

Q. How long will the transplant patient stay in the hospital?
A. Patients stay in the hospital for about 2 to 3 weeks. The length of stay varies from patient to patient. Some patients may have several short admissions.

Q. When will the stem cells start to grow again?
A. Stem cells start to grow back or “engraft” within 10 to 14 days after re-infusion.

Q. What will the patient’s quality of life be after transplant?
A. On average, patients take 3 to 6 months to recover from a transplant. By this time, the immune system will once again fight infections because the bone marrow is producing healthy blood cells. Hair will grow back, but the taste buds might still be a little quirky. Foods that tasted good before a transplant might not taste good now. However, in most cases, patients should be able to return to normal daily activities. It can take as long as a year to recover normal functioning. Patients and their caregivers must take one day at a time. There will be bad days and good days, and they won’t necessarily come in that order. Patients should prepare themselves to feel differently each day during the recovery process.

Q. Should transplant patients expect changes in their emotions?
A. Yes. Transplant is more than just a medical procedure. Because it forces the patient to rely upon the oncologist and other members of the transplant team, as well as on family and friends, there is often a loss of the sense of independence and control. Feelings of isolation, depression, and helplessness are common to transplant patients. Patients and loved ones should seek assistance from a trained professional who has experience in counseling. Help may also be found through patient support groups.

Q. What alternative and complementary therapies can be taken during and after transplant?
A. Some patients believe that alternative and complementary therapies are an important part of their treatment program. Because all drugs, synthetic and natural, interact, and may create unanticipated side effects, patients should always consult their doctors about their use. The doctor should be informed of the names of all the alternative and complementary therapies being taken so that he or she can adjust the regimen accordingly. It is important to note that even seemingly innocuous over-the counter drugs, e.g., ibuprofen, may be harmful to a patient with myeloma.

 related articles