What is high-dose treatment with stem cell support?

High-dose treatment with stem cell support is normally given after treatment with standard chemotherapy. It’s used to destroy any remaining cancer cells and can increase the chances of curing certain types of cancers or leukaemias.

High-dose treatment with stem cell support involves storing your stem cells and returning them to you after treatment. This allows you to have much higher doses of chemotherapy than usual.

This treatment is also called autologous stem cell transplant. It is used to treat different cancers and some types of leukaemias and lymphomas. It can also be used to treat some rare non-cancerous conditions.

About high-dose treatment with stem cell support

High-dose treatment with stem cell support involves treatment with chemotherapy – and sometimes radiotherapy. Then, your own stem cells (early blood cells) are used to replace blood cells destroyed during the high-dose treatment.

You may also hear people call it an autologous stem cell transplant, an autograft or a bone marrow transplant.

High-dose treatment with stem cell support can be used to treat different cancers, including lymphoma, leukaemia, myeloma and teratoma. It can also be used as a treatment for some non-cancerous conditions.

Both adults and children can have high-dose treatment with stem cell support. This information is for adults who are having treatment. If you’re a parent whose child is going to have high-dose treatment with stem cell support, the Children’s Cancer and Leukaemia Group has information about it.


When high-dose treatment with stem cell support is used

High-dose treatment with stem cell support allows you to have much higher doses of chemotherapy than usual to treat the cancer or leukaemia. It’s usually given after you have had standard dose treatment to get rid of as many cancer cells as possible. High-dose treatment is then given to try to destroy any remaining cancer cells.

High-dose treatments with stem cell support are given in hospitals with large cancer units that specialise in giving this treatment.

You will usually need to stay in hospital for a few weeks.

High-dose treatment with stem cell support can be used to increase the chances of curing certain types of cancer or leukaemia.

It can also be used to help keep cancer in remission for as long as possible. Remission means there are no signs of the cancer.

This treatment may be used when:

  • there is a high risk of the cancer returning
  • the cancer has come back after treatment
  • the cancer hasn’t responded completely to treatment.

High-dose treatment will destroy the stem cells in your bone marrow as well as the cancer cells. Because of this, some of your stem cells are taken and stored before you have high-dose treatment.

After high-dose treatment, the stored stem cells are given back to you through a drip (infusion). The cells go to your bone marrow and start to make blood cells again. Without stem cells, it could take weeks or even months for your blood count to get back to normal.

Although it’s an intensive procedure, high-dose treatment with stem cell support is less complicated than treatments that use stem cells from a donor (called allogeneic transplants).

There are fewer problems and recovery is faster.


The stages of high-dose treatment with stem cell support

Stage 1 – Preparing for treatment

High-dose treatment with stem cell support is usually given after several courses of chemotherapy to get rid of most or all of the cancer cells. This gives the treatment the best chance of working.

Your doctor will tell you if they think high dose chemotherapy and stem cell support are the right treatment for you.

Once you have finished this chemotherapy you will have tests to check your general health and your heart, lungs and kidneys.

Stage 2 – Collecting the stem cells

This is known as the harvest. Your stem cells are usually collected a few days or weeks before you have high-dose treatment.

They are frozen and stored until they’re needed.

Stage 3 – High-dose treatment

High-dose treatment is given to get rid of any cancer cells left in your body. You may have high-dose chemotherapy on its own or with radiotherapy. This will destroy most or all of the blood cells in your bone marrow. This stage is also called conditioning treatment. It can take from one day to up to a week.

Stage 4 – Having the stem cells (transplant)

After your high-dose treatment, your own stem cells are given back to you through a drip (infusion). This is a bit like having a blood transfusion.

Stage 5 – Waiting for your blood count to recover (engraftment)

It is usually two weeks before the stem cells start to make new blood cells. You’ll needs lots of medical and nursing support until your blood count returns to a safe level. You’ll probably be looked after in a room of your own to protect you from infection.

Stage 6 – Recovery after a transplant

You will be able to go home once your blood count has recovered and you are feeling well enough. You’ll be given advice about any precautions you need to take in the first few months, for example in your diet or lifestyle.


Back to Stem cell and bone marrow transplants explained

Your feelings

You may experience difficult feelings after your treatment. Talking to those close to you can help.