A lot of people ask me about that experience, so I’ve put together a list of the five most common questions I get, along with my answers.
What kind of stem cell transplant did you have?
There are two different types of stem cell transplants: allogeneic and autologous. In an allogeneic transplant, the stem cells come from a donor. I had an autologous stem cell transplant, in which my own cells were used to heal me.
How are the stem cells collected?
The process of harvesting stem cells takes several days. First, I was given a series of Neupogen shots in the abdomen to stimulate my body to produce more stem cells. The injections didn’t hurt.
A few days later, I relaxed in MD Anderson’s apheresis room while my blood was passed through a centrifuge. The centrifuge collected my stem cells and returned the rest of the blood to my body. This process was repeated several times to ensure we had enough stem cells. It took about eight hours over two days to collect 8.1 million of my stem cells.
The stem cells were then divided for storage. Half would be used for the transplant; the other half would be saved in case I needed them at some point in the future. Since multiple myeloma is considered incurable, the question is not, “Will the cancer return?” but rather, “When will the cancer return?” Luckily, I haven’t needed that second bag yet. I hope I never do.
What was the stem cell transplant process like?
Before I underwent my actual transplant, I had three cycles of chemotherapy over 90 days. This killed the cancer and prepared my immune system for the high-dose chemotherapy I would receive while an inpatient at MD Anderson.
Seven days prior to my stem cell transplant, the heavy dose chemo was administered by IV. The actual stem cell transplant happened on Aug. 4, 2015. It took about 30 minutes for the purified stem cells to be transfused back into my body through an IV.
The entire process is hard and intense, so a strong and positive attitude is critical. You’ve got to be mentally and physically prepared.
How did you feel on the day of the transplant?
That was a moment my wife and I had dreamed about for months, so emotions ran high and time seemed to stand still. Just looking at the collected stem cells in the IV bag was overwhelming. Most people would just see a milky liquid (stem cells) on top of red fluid (blood). But for me, the contents of that bag represented a second chance at life. Those cells reset your immune system and, in theory, clear out any remaining cancerous plasma cells.
What happened after the stem cell transplant?
After the transfusion was complete, everyone took a breath and we all cried. Then came the hard part. We had to wait for the stem cells to “graft” into my bone marrow, so my white blood cell count would start rising and build back up to reasonable levels.
I stayed in the hospital for 23 days while this happened and was released on Aug. 19, 2015. I stayed close to MD Anderson for nine days after that, in case I developed any complications.
I was finally discharged to go home on Aug. 28, 2015, and began returning to MD Anderson for regular follow-ups every three months. After the first 12 months, you only have to come back once a year, so I’m on an annual schedule now. And so far, I remain cancer-free.