India has the third highest number of haematological cancer [including Hodgkin's Lymphoma, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (blood cell tumours), various types of leukaemia (blood cancers) and multiple myeloma (cancer of plasma cells)] patients in the world after the US and China, according to a report prepared by World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer. Bone marrow transplants, sometimes, are the only life-saving interventions for people suffering from such conditions.
However, with the term 'bone marrow donation,' people often conjure images of doctors drilling into their spine and excruciating pain, whereas bone marrow donation is a simple, safe and relatively painless process.
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When a person living with cancer receives his or her own stem cells, the procedure is called an autologous stem cell transplant. When someone living with cancer gets stem cells from a donor, the procedure is known as an allogeneic stem cell transplant.
There are many factors that determine the need for a bone marrow transplant like the type of cancer, stage of the cancer, how aggressive the cancer is, whether it has responded to any prior treatments and age and general physical condition of the patient.
A bone marrow transplant is considered a major medical procedure and can lead to both acute and long-term side effects. An acute side effect would be anything that affects the patient within 30 - 100 days of the transplant. These include:
- Drop in blood pressure
- Fall in blood counts and haemoglobin levels
- Fever, chills, headache and pain
- Shortness of breath
- Infections that can be viral, fungal or bacterial
- Graft-versus-host disease (GVHD), which is a condition in which donor cells attack your body
- Graft failure, which occurs when transplanted cells don't begin producing new cells as planned
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Long term side effects may sometimes lead to infertility, changes in the skin, and oral cavity, increased infection rates and diarrhoea.
It is important to discuss at length with the treating doctor on any concerns the patient may have regarding bone marrow transplant before opting for the procedure to weigh the risks and complications against the potential benefits of this procedure.
Dr. Neelesh Reddy is currently the Consultant, Medical Oncologist at the Columbia Asia Hospitals, Bangalore.