What is high-dose treatment with stem cell support?

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 is normally given after treatment with standard chemotherapy and is used to destroy any remaining cancer cells. This can increase the chances of curing certain types of cancers or leukaemias.

High-dose treatment destroys the stem cells in your bone marrow as well as the cancer cells. This means you will have some of your stem cells taken and stored. After the treatment, they are given back to you through a drip (infusion). Your stem cells make their way to your bone marrow and start making new blood cells. 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 help keep certain cancers, such as myeloma, in remission for longer.

About high-dose treatment with stem cell support

High-dose treatment with stem cell support allows you to have much higher doses of chemotherapy than usual to treat the cancer or leukaemia.

You usually have standard-dose treatment first to get rid of as many cancer cells as possible. After this, you have high-dose treatment to destroy any remaining cancer cells. But high-dose treatment destroys the stem cells in your bone marrow as well as the cancer cells.

Because of this, you have some of your stem cells taken and stored before having high-dose treatment. After the treatment, they are given back to you through a drip (infusion). Your stem cells make their way to your bone marrow and start making new blood cells. Without this it could take weeks or even months for your blood count to recover.

High-dose treatment with stem cell support increases the chances of curing certain cancers or leukaemia. It also helps keep certain cancers, like myeloma, in remission for as long as possible. Remission is when there are no signs of the cancer.

This treatment may be used when:

  • there is a higher risk of the cancer coming back without it
  • the cancer has come back after other treatment
  • the cancer has not responded completely to treatment.

Although it is an intensive procedure, it is less complicated than using stem cells from a donor (called allogeneic transplants). There are fewer problems and recovery is faster. You have it in a cancer unit that specialises in this treatment. You will usually need to stay in hospital for a few weeks.


Having the treatment

Your cancer doctor, nurse or transplant co-ordinator will explain why you are being advised to have this treatment. They will also tell you about the possible benefits and risks.

High-dose treatment with stem cell support is a complex treatment, but it can be divided into six stages. There is a brief explanation of what is involved at each stage below.


The stages of high-dose treatment with stem cell support

The stages of high-dose treatment with stem cell support
The stages of high-dose treatment with stem cell support

View a large version

Read a description of this image


Stage 1: Getting ready for treatment

Your specialist will explain the benefits and risks of having this treatment. If you decide to go ahead, you have several courses of standard chemotherapy to get rid of as many cancer cells as possible. When you have finished standard chemotherapy, you will have tests to check your general health. You may also have tests on your heart, lungs and kidneys.

Stage 2: Collecting the stem cells

This is known as the harvest. Your stem cells are usually collected at least two weeks before you have high-dose treatment. They are frozen and stored until they are needed.

Stage 3: High-dose treatment

You are given high-dose treatment to destroy as many cancer cells as possible that may be left in your body. You may have high-dose chemotherapy on its own or with radiotherapy. This destroys most or all of the cancer cells. But it also affects healthy blood cells in your bone marrow. This stage is also called conditioning treatment. It can take from one day to a week.

Stage 4: Having the stem cells

After your high-dose treatment, your own stem cells are given back to you through a drip (infusion).

Stage 5: Waiting for new blood cells to grow

It is usually between 10 and 12 days before the stem cells start to make new blood cells. Sometimes it may take longer. Doctors call this engraftment. You will need lots of medical and nursing support until your blood count returns to a safe level.

Stage 6: Recovering after your transplant

When your blood count has recovered and you are well enough, you can go home. Your doctor or nurse will give you 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

Preparing for treatment

A transplant is physically demanding. Your healthcare team will tell you what to expect and how to prepare for it.

Your feelings

Having a stem cell transplant can be hard to cope with. There are different ways of getting support.