Preparing for treatment

Having a stem cell transplant is very physically and emotionally demanding. Your healthcare team will tell you what to expect and how to prepare for it.

You will have tests and scans before the transplant to check your general health. You may also have a central line or a PICC line inserted into a vein. Blood samples can be taken and medicines can be given through this line.

If you smoke, your healthcare team will advise you to quit smoking before you start treatment. They will also ask you to have any dental treatment before treatment. They will discuss your fertility with you, as stem cell transplants can cause infertility.

You will know the date of your treatment in advance. This means you can start to make practical arrangements, such as letting your work know, organising pet or childcare, or making sure your house will be secure while you are in hospital.

You can usually visit the unit beforehand and meet the team who will be looking after you. They can tell you what things you might want to bring with you for your stay in the unit. They can also give you information for your visitors.

Getting ready for treatment

Having a stem cell transplant is physically demanding. It is important to make sure that you are fit enough to have the treatment. Your doctors will check your general health and find out if you have any other conditions that could cause complications. They will ask you questions about your health and lifestyle, and give you advice on how best to prepare yourself.

Stem cell transplants may also be emotionally demanding for some people. Some people have complex feelings about it. Having support from family, friends and your healthcare team is helpful.

There may be a counsellor who can help you cope with any worries you have before your treatment. They can also support you during your stay in hospital. You could also use our Online Community to meet people who are going through similar experiences to you.


You will need tests before treatment starts. The tests you have will depend on what type of transplant you are having. Your doctor or specialist nurse will talk to you about the tests you need. They may include:

  • blood tests to check your general health, such as how well your kidneys and liver are working, whether you have any infections or viruses (including hepatitis and HIV) or if you are cytomegalovirus (CMV) positive or negative (only for donor transplants)
  • chest x-ray to check your lungs and heart
  • breathing tests to check how well your lungs work
  • kidney tests to see how well your kidneys are working
  • heart tests such as an ECG (electrocardiogram) or ECHO (echocardiogram) to check your heart is healthy
  • a CT (computerised tomography) scan or bone scan to check for any problems in your bones
  • a bone marrow biopsy to check that you are in remission (no active cancer cells)
  • swabs and samples to test for infection, for example from your mouth or throat
  • a pregnancy test if you are a woman and can still have children.

Some of the tests will depend on the type of cancer or leukaemia you have.

Giving up smoking

If you smoke, your transplant team will advise you to stop. This is because smoking increases the risk of transplant complications and long-term side effects. Stopping smoking is also important for your recovery.

Giving up smoking is also the most important thing you can do for your general health. Smoking increases the risk of developing heart and lung conditions, as well as smoking-related cancers.

Smoking is a difficult habit to break, especially when you are stressed. But there are organisations and groups that can help you. Your GP can give advice and prescribe nicotine replacement therapies, such as nicotine patches, gums and inhalers.

Dental care

You will be asked to visit a dentist for a check-up, and to have any dental work you need before treatment starts. Making sure your teeth or dentures are in good condition reduces the risk of problems with your mouth during treatment.


Your doctors may have talked to you about your fertility before other cancer treatments you may have had.

Donor stem cell transplants usually cause infertility (being unable to have children) in women and in men. This is because of the high doses of chemotherapy you need to have. Some people also have total body irradiation, which usually makes you infertile.

The effects on your fertility depend on the intensity of the conditioning treatment and your age. Even if a woman’s periods do come back, she is still likely to have an early menopause.

It is important to talk to your specialist about your fertility before treatment starts. If you are still able to have children, there may be ways of preserving your fertility. This could include the option of having children in the future using fertility treatments.

Fertility is a very important part of many people’s lives, and not being able to have children can seem especially hard when you already have to cope with cancer. Some people may find it helpful to talk through their feelings with a trained counsellor. If you need more specialised help, your doctor can arrange this for you.

We have more information about fertility for men and women.

Your central line

While you are in hospital, you will need different drugs given into your vein (intravenously) and blood samples taken every day. To make this easier and avoid lots of injections, a doctor or nurse will put a thin plastic tube (central line) into a vein in your chest. It can be used to:

  • collect blood samples
  • give you chemotherapy and other drugs, such as antibiotics
  • give you the stem cells
  • give you fluids
  • give you blood and platelet transfusions.

There are different types of central line available including Hickman® lines and Groshong® lines. You will usually have your line put in using a local anaesthetic to numb the area. The doctor or nurse makes a small cut (incision) in the skin near your collarbone. They gently thread the line under your skin and into a large vein in your chest. You have a stitch to hold the line in place. This is usually taken out after three weeks when the line is secure.

You will be able to see a thin flexible tube coming out from your chest. It may divide into two or three tubes so you can have different treatments at the same time.

It may feel sore or uncomfortable for a couple of days after it has been put in. Taking regular painkillers will help.

PICC line

If you can’t have a central line, your doctors may arrange for you to have a PICC (peripherally inserted central catheter) line. This is a long, thin, flexible tube which is put into a vein in your arm, near the bend of the elbow. It is threaded through the vein until the end of it lies in a large vein near the heart.

Your nurse will explain how to care for your central line or your PICC line.

Visiting the unit

You can usually visit the unit before your transplant to give you an idea of what to expect. It is a good idea to take a relative or friend with you. During the visit, you can meet and talk to the team who will be looking after you. They will tell you what to expect and give you advice on preparing for your transplant.

Teenagers and young adults

Some hospitals have teenage and young adult cancer units (sometimes called TYA units). You will be with other people your own age and cared for by people who are used to working with teenagers and young adults.

There may be internet access, a computer, games consoles, DVDs and music to help you feel more at home. Sometimes education specialists come to support you with your studies while you are having treatment.

Getting organised

When your treatment is planned, you can start to make practical arrangements. Ask your family, friends or partner, if you have one, for help.

For example, you might have to:

  • let your work or college know
  • organise childcare
  • arrange for bills to be paid
  • ask someone to look after any pets
  • make sure your house is going to be secure.

Going into hospital

About a week before the transplant, you will go into hospital to start conditioning treatment. You will usually be looked after in a room of your own but this can depend on the unit you are in. You will be staying in your room for at least a few weeks, so you might want to take some things from home.

What to take

The nurses will suggest what to take to keep you busy and make you more comfortable. You could take a laptop, radio, MP3 player, audiobooks or relaxation CDs, books and magazines.

You may also be able to take films, computer games, games or a hobby, such as knitting. Many hospitals have TVs and DVD players, and some have internet access.

You can take personal things, such as photos, pictures and maybe a clean blanket or pillow.

Take some comfortable, loose-fitting clothes. Soft, cotton materials are best, and tops with buttons will make it easier when you are being examined. An eye mask and ear plugs to help you to sleep can also be useful.

Ask the nurses for advice about the toiletries you should bring with you.

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.