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What to Know About Stem Cell Transplants for Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma

Certain types of non-Hodgkin lymphoma are sometimes treated with a stem cell transplant. This is also called bone marrow transplantation or peripheral blood stem cell transplantation. 

This treatment is sometimes used for lymphomas that are in remission or have recurred after initial treatment. The cancer cells are killed with high doses of chemotherapy, sometimes along with radiation. These treatments will also damage your bone marrow, which is where new blood cells are normally made. So your bone marrow is replaced with healthy bone marrow cells. The way you get these new, healthy bone marrow cells is by getting new stem cells.

These cells can make the red blood cells that carry oxygen to the body tissues, the white blood cells that help prevent infections, or platelets, which help prevent bruising and bleeding. In the case of lymphoma, a stem cell transplant helps your body make new, healthy blood cells. It replaces the normal cells that are killed during treatment.

The different ways you can get a stem cell transplant for non-Hodgkin lymphoma

Stem cells may come from your own body or from a donor. A donor is someone whose tissue is a close match to yours. If the cells come from you, the transplant is called autologous. If they come from a donor, the transplant is called allogeneic. A doctor removes the cells before you have chemotherapy or radiation treatment and stores them until you need them. After treatment, you get the stem cells through a transfusion. From there they go to the bone marrow, where they begin to multiply.

Stem cells may be removed in one of these ways:

  • Bone marrow aspiration. You or the donor receives general anesthesia, which puts you to sleep so that you don't feel anything. Then the doctor removes bone marrow from the hip or pelvic bones. The stem cells are filtered and frozen until later. You may be sore from the puncture for several days. You will likely be an outpatient for this procedure. That means you don't need to stay the night in the hospital.

  • Apheresis. You or the donor is injected with a growth factor drug for several days. It encourages stem cells to grow and to enter the bloodstream. Then blood is removed from your vein or the donor's vein in a process similar to donating blood. A special device separates out the stem cells. The rest of the blood is then infused back into the body. This whole process may be repeated more than once. The stem cells are frozen until later.

  • Umbilical cord blood. In some cases, stem cells may come from the umbilical cord attached to the placenta after a baby is born and the umbilical cord is cut. (This blood is rich in stem cells.) The blood is then frozen and stored until it is needed. 

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