Stem cells are immature "starter" cells for all types of tissues. When you have leukemia, a stem cell transplant may be used to help your body make new, healthy blood cells. The transplant replaces the blood stem cells that are killed during high-dose chemotherapy. If you receive stem cells from a donor, the transplant may also help kill leukemia cells that may have survived the chemotherapy.
Stem cell transplants are somewhat controversial. Your doctor may suggest one in the following situations:
Your leukemia does not respond to standard chemotherapy or it comes back (relapses) after a remission (a reduction or absence of symptoms).
Your leukemia goes into remission with standard chemotherapy, but you have a type of leukemia or other prognostic factors that make it likely the leukemia will relapse.
A stem cell transplant is an intensive procedure that is more likely to succeed in people who are young and previously healthy. Whenever possible, using stem cells from a matched donor is preferred over using your own stem cells. However, this requires having a matched donor available to provide the stem cells for the transplant. In many cases, the donor may be a family member, but stem cells may also come from a matched, unrelated donor if no family member has your tissue type. It's important to discuss the procedure thoroughly with your doctor beforehand to make sure you understand the possible risks and benefits.
Stem cell transplants are complex procedures. They require the services of specialized doctors called bone marrow transplant specialists. If you decide to have one, be sure to go to a hospital that specializes in stem cell transplants, such as a major cancer center. These hospitals are often accredited by the Foundation for the Accreditation of Cellular Therapy. The procedure is also expensive (costing more than $100,000), and not all insurance companies cover the cost.