As a volunteer with CanCare and myCancerConnection, MD Anderson's one-on-one program that connects cancer patients and caregivers with others who have been there, I talk to a lot of other multiple myeloma patients. Most ask about the stem cell transplant process and my experience.
Here's what I tell them.
What to know about autologous stem cell transplants
A transplant infuses health cells -- also known as stem cells -- into a cancer patient's body to replace damaged cells.
Stem cells for transplants can come from three sources. I had an autologous stem cell transplant, which means cells from my own bone marrow were used. Some people undergo an allogeneic transplant, which means they receive stem cells from a donor. Some patients receive umbilical cord blood instead. Not all patients are eligible for a stem cell transplant.
To help kill some of the cancerous cells and get the body ready to accept the new stem cells, most patients need very strong chemotherapy. For me, this was the strongest chemo I had, and the idea was daunting. The chemo is so intense that most patients have their chemo and transplant done as inpatients and remain in the hospital for the first month of their recovery. But my stem cell transplant doctor said I would have mine as an outpatient. She believed I was healthy enough to recover at home.
Chemotherapy and the cell collection process
I began the process by having my apheresis port inserted. This is a larger IV-type access used to collect and administer the stem cells. It's inserted in the chest with tubes on the outside of the body, similar to PICC lines people get in their arms.
After the port was inserted, we began the cell collection process. Every day for about a week, I visited the Apheresis Unit, where I gave myself an injection to make my body produce more blood cells -- the stem cells. I then climbed into a comfy bed with warmed blankets and relaxed while they connected the machine to the port in my chest. For a couple of hours, I relaxed while the machine collected the blood cells. Afterward, I received another blood cell-boosting injection and went on about my day.
Once they'd collected roughly the number of cells I needed, the chemo infusion was done. It took about an hour each time. The nurse stressed that I should suck on ice chips during the process to reduce the risk of mouth sores.
This chemo was done for two consecutive days, then I got a one-day break while they started me on antibiotics and medications to support my immune system and combat chemo side-effects.
My autologous stem cell transplant
The next day was THE day -- my "birthday," as we patients call transplant day. Except for the injection, I followed the same routine as during cell collection. This time, the same machine put the cells back in.
The infusion process took about four hours. I recommend sucking on mints or some sort of candy the entire time. There's a preservative that gives an awful metallic taste during the infusion.
My autologous stem cell transplant recovery
After my autologous stem cell transplant, I returned to MD Anderson every other day to track my blood count.
At first, I felt fine, though a little nauseated and tired. After four or five days, I felt really tired. Other than the trips for the lab work, I stayed on my couch and ate little meals. After seven days, my hair started to fall out, and I felt worse.
At one point, my platelets dropped so low that I had to get a transfusion. One day, I met a lady in the lab who told me that I'd start to feel much better at about two weeks. She was right. After the second week, my blood counts started to come back up.
I improved each day and started to leave the house more. I always took a mask -- doctor's orders. In the weeks after a stem cell transplant, you have no immune system and can't afford to pick up a virus or bacteria from other people. I made wearing a mask fun, though, by drawing on big lips, or decorating them with glitter glue or sequins.
After the first month, I felt good. By month two, I felt better than I'd felt in a long while. By the end of the third month, I returned to work, though I was still cautious about public places and wore my mask.
Remission after my autologous stem cell transplant
Looking back, my autologous stem cell transplant was not as bad as I had feared, though each person is different. Some people experience more side-effects from the chemo than I did. However, my oncologists gave me the medications I needed to prevent side-effects or treated them as necessary.
Four years later, I'm happy to say I'm in remission, thanks in large part to my doctors -- and my stem cell transplant.
To connect with other cancer patients and caregivers through myCancerConnection, please call 800-345-6324 or visit myCancerConnection online.