- What we’ll cover here
- What are stem cells and why are they transplanted?
- Why would someone need a stem cell transplant?
- Weigh the risks before transplant
- Types of stem cell transplants for treating cancer
- Sources of stem cells for transplant
- Donor matching for allogeneic transplant
- The transplant process
- Problems that may come up soon after transplant
- Transplant problems that may show up later
- Other transplant issues
- What questions should I ask my doctor before transplant?
- What’s it like to donate stem cells?
- To learn more
Problems that may come up soon after transplant
Here are some of the more common problems that may happen shortly after transplant. Many of them come from having the bone marrow wiped out by medicines or radiation just before the transplant. Others may result from the specific medicines used for the conditioning phase, or from the radiation. Some of these problems tend to happen less often and be less severe in people who get mini-transplants.
This is not a complete list and you should tell your doctor or transplant team about any problems you have or changes you notice. Some of these problems can be life-threatening, so it’s important to be able to reach your doctor or transplant team at night, on weekends, and during holidays. Be sure you know how to do this.
Mouth and throat pain
Mucositis (inflammation or sores in the mouth) is a short-term side effect that can happen with chemo and radiation. It usually gets better within a few weeks after chemo, but it can make it very painful to eat and drink. It can be a challenge to eat and avoid dehydration. If your mouth hurts, you may be given medicine to numb your mouth or help the pain. You may need to take the medicine before meals so that it’s easier to eat. Be sure to tell your doctor about any pain and if the medicines to help it are working.
Good nutrition is important for people with cancer. If mouth pain or sores make it hard to eat or swallow, your health care team will help you develop a plan to manage your symptoms. For more suggestions, see our document, Nutrition for the Person With Cancer During Treatment: A Guide for Patients and Families.
Nausea and vomiting
Because chemotherapy drugs can cause severe nausea and vomiting, doctors often give anti-nausea medicines at the same time as chemo to try and prevent it. This is still true when you’re getting chemo as part of a bone marrow transplant.
Anti-nausea medicines are often given on a regular schedule around the clock. This means you take them even if you don’t have any problems. Sometimes you may be asked to take a medicine on an “as needed” schedule. This means you take the medicine at the first sign of nausea to keep it from getting worse. In many cases, 2 or more medicines are used.
No one drug can prevent or control chemo-related nausea and vomiting 100% of the time. You’ll need to tell the doctor and nurses how well your medicines are controlling your nausea and vomiting. If they aren’t working, they will need to be changed.
As much as possible, the goal is to prevent nausea and vomiting, because it’s easier to prevent it than it is to stop it once it starts. Preventive treatment should start before the chemo is given and should continue for as long as the chemo is likely to cause vomiting, which can be up to 7 to 10 days after the last dose.
During the first 6 weeks after transplant, until the new bone marrow starts making white blood cells (engraftment), you can easily get serious infections. While your white blood cell counts are low, you are said to be neutropenic. (See “White blood cells” in the section called “What are stem cells and why are they used in transplants?” for more information.) Bacterial infections are most common during this time, but viral infections that were controlled by your immune system can become active again. Fungal infections can also be an issue. And even infections that cause only mild symptoms in people with normal immune systems can be quite dangerous for you.
As discussed in “Recovery” in the section called “The transplant process,” you may be given antibiotics to try to prevent infections until your blood counts reach a certain level. For instance, pneumocystis pneumonia (pronounced new-mo-SIST-is new-moan-ee-uh, often called PCP) is a common infection that is easy to catch. Even though the germ doesn’t harm people with normal immune systems, for others it can cause fever, cough, and serious breathing problems. Doctors often give patients antibiotics to keep them from getting this.
Your doctor may check you before transplant for signs of certain infections that may become active after transplant, and give you special medicines to keep those germs under control. For example, the virus called CMV (cytomegalovirus) is a common cause of pneumonia in people who have had transplants. It mainly happens to people who were already infected with CMV, or whose donor had the virus. If neither you nor your donor had CMV, the transplant team might follow special precautions to prevent infection while you are in the hospital.
After engraftment, the risk of infection is lower, but it still can happen. It takes 6 months to a year after a transplant for the immune systems of most patients to work as well as they should. It can take even longer for patients with graft-versus-host disease (GVHD).
Because of the increased risk, you will be watched closely for signs of infection, such as fever, cough, shortness of breath, or diarrhea. Your doctor may check your blood often, and extra precautions will be needed to avoid exposure to germs. While in the hospital, everyone who enters your room must wash their hands well. They may also wear gowns, shoe coverings, gloves, and masks.
Since flowers and plants can carry bacteria and fungi, they are not allowed in your room. For the same reason, you may be told not to eat certain fresh fruits and vegetables. All your food must be well cooked and handled very carefully by you and family members. Certain foods may need to be avoided for a while.
You may also be told to avoid contact with soil, feces (stool, both human and animal), aquariums, reptiles, and exotic pets. Your team may tell you to avoid being near disturbed soil, bird droppings, or mold. You will need to wash your hands after touching pets. Your family may need to move the cat’s litter box away from places you eat or spend your time. Some transplant teams recommend cleaning carpets, floors, furniture, and drapes before you go home. Your transplant team will tell you and your family in detail about the precautions you need to follow during this time. There are many viruses, bacteria, and fungi that can cause infection after your transplant.
Despite all these precautions, patients often develop fevers, one of the first signs of infection. If you do get a fever or other signs of infection, tests will be done to look for the cause of the infection (chest x-rays, urine tests, and blood cultures) and antibiotics will be started right away. Be sure to ask which symptoms you should call the doctor about at nights and on weekends (also ask how to contact your doctor in an emergency).
Bleeding and transfusions
After a transplant, you are at risk for bleeding because the conditioning treatment destroys your body’s ability to make platelets. (Platelets are the blood cells that help blood to clot.) While you wait for your transplanted stem cells to start working, your transplant team may have you follow special precautions to avoid injury and bleeding. Platelet counts are low for at least 3 weeks after transplant. In the meantime, you might notice easy bruising and bleeding, such as nosebleeds and bleeding gums. If your platelet count drops below a certain level (such as 20,000/mm3 or even lower), a platelet transfusion may be needed. (A low platelet count is called thrombocytopenia.) You will need to follow precautions until your platelet counts stay at safe levels. (See “Platelets” in the section called “What are stem cells and why are they transplanted?” for more information.)
It also takes time for your bone marrow to begin making red blood cells, and you might need red blood cell transfusions from time to time as you recover.
Interstitial pneumonitis and other lung problems
Pneumonitis (new-muh-NY-tus) is a type of lung inflammation that’s most common in the first 100 days after a stem cell transplant. But some lung problems can happen much later — even 2 or more years after transplant.
Pneumonia caused by infection happens more often, but pneumonitis may be caused by radiation, graft-versus-host disease, or chemo rather than germs. It’s caused by damage to the areas between the cells of the lungs (called interstitial spaces, pronounced in-ter-STIH-shul). Pneumonitis can be severe, especially if total body irradiation was given with chemo as part of the conditioning treatment. Chest x-rays will be taken in the hospital to watch for pneumonitis as well as pneumonia. Some doctors will do breathing tests every few months if you have graft-versus-host disease (see next section).
You should report any shortness of breath or changes in your breathing to your doctor or transplant team right away. There are many other types of lung and breathing problems that also need to be handled quickly.
Graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) can happen in allogeneic transplants when the immune cells from the donor see the recipient’s body as foreign. (Remember: The recipient’s immune system has mostly been destroyed by conditioning treatment and cannot fight back — the new stem cells make up most of the immune system after transplant.) The donor immune cells may attack certain organs, most often the skin, gastrointestinal (GI) tract, and liver. This can change the way the organs work and increase the chances of infection.
GVHD reactions are very common and can range from barely noticeable to life-threatening. Doctors think of GVHD as acute or chronic. Acute GVHD starts soon after transplant and lasts a short time. Chronic GVHD starts later and lasts a long time. A person may have one, both, or neither type of GVHD.
Acute GVHD can happen 10 to 90 days after a transplant, though the average time is around 25 days.
About one-third to one-half of allogeneic transplant recipients develops acute GVHD. It’s less common in younger patients and in those with closer HLA matches between donor and recipient.
The first signs are usually a rash, burning, and redness of the skin on the palms and soles. This can spread over the entire body. Other symptoms include:
- Stomach cramps
- Diarrhea (watery and sometimes bloody)
- Loss of appetite
- Yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice)
- Abdominal (belly) pain
- Weight loss
Most cases are mild, and those who recover from it usually have no long-term effects. How well a person does depends on how bad the GVHD is. Some cases of GVHD can lead to death.
Doctors try to prevent acute GVHD by giving drugs, such as steroids, certain monoclonal antibodies, methotrexate, cyclosporine, and tacrolimus to lessen the immune response. These drugs are given before acute GVHD starts and can help prevent serious GVHD, but mild GVHD will almost always happen in allogeneic transplant patients. New and old drugs in different combinations are being tested for GVHD prevention.
The risk of acute GVHD can also be decreased by removing a certain kind immune cells (called T-cells) from the donor stem cells before the transplant. But this can also increase the risk of viral infection, leukemia relapse, and graft failure (which is discussed later). Researchers are looking at new ways to remove only certain cells, called alloactivated T-cells, from donor grafts. This would reduce the severity of GVHD and still let the donor T-cells destroy any cancer cells left. Preventing and managing GVHD are major priorities for research.
Chronic GVHD can start anywhere from about 100 to 400 days after the stem cell transplant. A rash on the palms of the hands or the soles of the feet is often the earliest sign. The rash can spread and is usually itchy and dry. In severe cases, the skin may blister and peel, like a bad sunburn. A fever may also develop. Other symptoms of chronic GVHD can include:
- Decreased appetite
- Abdominal (belly) cramps
- Weight loss
- Yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice)
- Enlarged liver
- Bloated abdomen (belly)
- Pain in the upper right part of the abdomen (belly)
- Increased levels of liver enzymes in the blood (seen on blood tests)
- The skin feels tight
- Dry, burning eyes
- Dryness or painful sores in the mouth
- Burning sensations when eating acidic foods
- Bacterial infections
- Blockages in the smaller airways of the lungs
Chronic GVHD is treated with medicines that suppress the immune system, much like those used for acute GVHD. These drugs can increase your risk of infection for as long as you are treated for GVHD (see the “Infection” section).
Hepatic veno-occlusive disease
Hepatic veno-occlusive (heh-pat-ick vee-no - uh-kloo-siv) disease (VOD) is a serious problem in which tiny veins and other blood vessels inside the liver become blocked. It only happens in people with allogeneic transplants, and mainly in those who got the drugs busulfan or melphalan as part of conditioning.
VOD usually happens within 3 weeks of conditioning. It’s more common in older people who had liver problems before the transplant, and in those with acute GVHD. It starts with yellowing skin and eyes, dark urine, tenderness below the right ribs, and quick weight gain (mostly from fluid that bloats the belly). Sometimes it can result in liver failure and death.
Doctors have found that giving busulfan in the vein (IV) rather than by mouth may reduce the risk of VOD. New ways to treat this problem are being tested.
Grafts fail when the body does not accept the new stem cells (the graft). The stem cells that were given do not go into the bone marrow and multiply like they should. Graft failure is more common when the patient and donor are not well matched and when patients get stem cells that have had the T-cells removed. It can also happen in patients who get a low number of stem cells, such as a single umbilical cord unit.
Graft failure can lead to serious bleeding and/or infection. It’s suspected in patients whose counts do not start going up within 3 to 4 weeks of a bone marrow or peripheral blood transplant, or within 7 weeks of a cord blood transplant.
It may be treated by a second dose of stem cells, if available. Grafts rarely fail, but if they do it can result in death.
Last Medical Review: 10/02/2013
Last Revised: 10/02/2013