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Treating With Transplants

Publication: Healthy Magazine, McAllen

Cancer is an equal opportunity offender. It can strike anyone at any time. It can also occur just about anywhere on or in the body—including the blood stream. According to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, approximately one in 10 cancer patients has a blood cancer.

Adults have about five quarts of blood circulating in their bodies, which is made of red blood cells that help carry oxygen throughout the body and white blood cells that help fight off infection. The body continually replenishes its blood supply by producing new red and white blood cells, as well as plasma cells, from adult (versus embryonic) stem cells in bone marrow, the soft tissue inside the bone.

There are three primary forms of blood cancers. Leukemia starts in the bone marrow and causes the body to produce abnormal white blood cells. Lymphoma is a cancer of the immune system that is found in the blood itself or lymph nodes. Multiple myeloma causes cancer cells to amass in the bone marrow and produce abnormal proteins that affect the kidneys.

When oncologists treat cancer, the most common approaches are surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy, with the goal to shrink or eliminate the cancer. Often, these methods are used in combination to give patients the best outcomes. Unfortunately, when a blood cancer develops, it cannot be surgically removed. Oncologists must focus on the source of the cancerous blood cells—cells that could be anywhere in a patient’s blood stream, lymph nodes or bone marrow.

Blood and marrow transplants give blood cancer patients another option for treating their cancers. Healthy blood stem cells are collected from either the patient or a donor, whose genetic makeup closely matches that of the patient. The patient then receives high dosages of chemotherapy that kills the cancer-producing cells throughout the body. The healthy blood stem cells are then injected into the patient where they begin to grow and reproduce to replenish the body’s blood supply.

This treatment was first developed in 1968, but advances have made it far easier for people to donate marrow and for patients to supply their own healthy adult stem cells. There have also been advances to make it easier for patients to recover from the transplant and, most important, increase the patient’s chances of living cancer-free.

Several decades ago, the phrase “blood and marrow transplants” conjured up thoughts of pain for the donor and a month or more of recovery in isolation in a specialized hospital unit for the patient. However, techniques have substantially improved.

While the transplants are still completed in specialized hospital units, the recovery period is often outpatient. “Mini transplants” have reduced recovery time and made the experience less taxing for many patients. The donor experience has become far more convenient with less discomfort as well.

Currently, there is a nationwide shortage of blood and marrow donors, and ethnic minorities are significantly underrepresented in donor registries. Registering to be a donor is easy: visit www.BeTheMatch.org to get a mail-in packet to register or attend a donor drive in your area. With a simple cheek swab, you can enter a national registry of potential donors. You may never be called to be a donor, but by registering, you give patients another opportunity for hope. If you’re interested in learning more, visit www.TexasOncology.com.

By Suresh Ratnam, MD

This story originally appeared in Healthy Magazine.

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