Childhood Cancer: A General Guide for Parents Part V (v): Bone Marrow & Peripheral Blood Stem Cell Transplants


In Part 1 of this series we explained that this series of articles is not meant to be medical advice, but a guide that may help you as a parent of a newly diagnosed child with cancer cope just a bit better. Information is knowledge, and never more so than when you are dealing with childhood cancer!

These articles are meant to help you be the key part of your child’s treatment that you will need to be. Take what works for you according to your situation and your child’s temperament, personality, fears, strengths, and how they deal with adversity, and leave what does not pertain to your situation.

Part 5 will deal with Different Types of Treatment and Possible Side-Effects of that treatment. As this is quite a long section, I will split it into 5(i) Surgery 5(ii) Chemotherapy 5(iii) Radiation Therapy 5(iv) Immunotherapy and 5(v) Bone Marrow & Peripheral Blood Stem Cell Transplants.

Complementary and Alternative Medicine treatment (CAM) is very involved and will contain a lot of information, so that will be dealt with separately in Part 6 of this series of articles.


Childhood Cancer Treatment

Treatment for childhood cancer is not the same for every patient; a treatment plan is drawn up for each individual according to various factors.

Your child’s doctor and oncology treatment team will collaborate to draw up a treatment plan based on the type of cancer, the stage of the disease, your child’s general health, your child’s age, and various other factors.

Once the team has all the facts, a detailed treatment plan will be drawn up, outlining the exact treatment your child will receive, how often the treatment will be given, and how long the treatment will last.

Treatment plans are strictly individualised, so even children with the same type of cancer may not get exactly the same type of treatment. The oncology team will monitor your child’s response to the treatment, and may change the treatment plan if it seems that the treatment is not working effectively; they may even change the type of treatment completely.

Cancer is not an easy disease to treat, and unfortunately some of the treatments used cause unpleasant or unwanted side-effects such as hair loss, nausea, and diarrhoea. Side effects happen because unfortunately some of the cancer treatments not only kill the cancer cells but can also damage some of the healthy cells.

Bear the following in mind as your child starts their cancer treatment:

  • Your child’s doctor will plan the treatment so that your child has as few side effects as possible;
  • The type of side effects your child experiences and how bad they are will be depend on the kind of drug used, the dosage given, and the way your child’s body reacts;
  • There are various ways to lessen your child’s side effects. Talk to the treatment team about things that can be done before, during, and after treatment to make your child more comfortable;
  • Sometimes the team may decide to lower the treatment dosage slightly to help lessen or even eliminate unpleasant side effects. This will generally not make the treatment less able to destroy cancer cells or hurt your child’s chances of recovery; and
  • Most side effects go away soon after treatment ends.

Not every child will suffer side-effects, and some children get very few. Side-effects will differ from child to child, even those who are receiving the same treatment. Your child’s doctor will be able to tell you what side-effects you can expect your child to possibly have based on the treatment plan, and how to deal with them should they occur.

In the previous article we dealt with Immunotherapy and all it entails; this article will deal with Bone Marrow and Peripheral Blood Stem Cell Transplants as a treatment for your child’s cancer and all this type of treatment entails.



Bone Marrow & Peripheral Blood Stem Cell Transplants

Children who have leukaemia or some other types of cancer may require a bone marrow transplant (BMT) or a peripheral blood stem cell transplant (PBSCT).

Both of these treatments involve replacing the blood cells in the diseased or damaged bone marrow (the spongy material that fills the inside of bones and makes blood cells) with healthy cells (stem cells), which will grow new healthy cells.

Stem cells are immature cells that produce the 3 types of blood cells:

  • White Blood Cells, which fight infection
  • Red Blood Cells, which carry oxygen to and remove waste products from organs and tissues
  • Platelets, which enable the blood to clot.

The majority of stem cells are found in the bone marrow, but there are also peripheral blood stem cells (PBSCs), which are collected from the bloodstream. Stem cells also occur in the blood of the umbilical cord.

Stem cells for a stem cell transplant for your child could come from a donor’s bone marrow, bloodstream, or umbilical cord blood; it could also be harvested from your child’s own bone marrow or bloodstream.

Healthy stem cells grow in two ways:

  • They divide to form more stem cells; or
  • They mature into white cells, red cells, and platelets.

Stem cells that are transplanted into a cancer patient can help the damaged blood-forming system to recover.

The need for a transplant is created by two circumstances:

  1. When the cancer itself has injured the bone marrow. PBSCT and BMT are commonly used in the treatment of leukaemia and lymphoma; and
  2. When a cancer treatment requires such huge doses of chemotherapy or radiation therapy that the child’s bone marrow is damaged during treatment. (Chemotherapy and radiation therapy target all cells that divide rapidly).

Cancer cells divide more rapidly than most healthy cells, which is the reason that they are destroyed by the therapies. Unfortunately bone marrow cells also divide more rapidly than other healthy cells, which means that high-dosage treatment can have a damaging effect on them as well.


A BMT or PBSCT can be done in 3 ways:

1. Allogeneic Transplant: The marrow or PBSCs from a parent, sibling, or someone not related to the child can be used for the transplant. The transplant material must be as closely matched to the patient’s blood cells as possible. Cord blood transplant is allogeneic.

2. Autologous Transplant: The patient’s own PBSCs cells or stem cells are used. These cells can be obtained from either the bone marrow or from the blood, using the apheresis procedure (blood is drawn and separated into its components by dialysis). Stem cells are collected while the child is in remission.

The marrow may be treated with anticancer drugs to ensure that any cancer cells that remain are destroyed. Once the PBSCs or marrow has been collected, the patient will receive high-dose chemotherapy, usually over 2 to 6 days. Total body irradiation, during which the whole body is radiated, is also often done, in one dose or in many doses over several days, to get rid of the cancer. Once this has taken place, the collected marrow or PBSCs are then returned to the patient via a vein, as in a blood transfusion.

3. Syngeneic Transplant: A Syngeneic transplant is when perfectly matched PBSCs or marrow from an identical twin are used for the transplant.

A catheter will generally be inserted into a large vein in the chest prior to your child undergoing such a transplant; it will be used for transplanting the marrow or PBSCs, as well as for giving blood, antibiotics and other drugs, and for drawing blood.



Your child will be given high doses of anticancer drugs and/or radiation. This will destroy the cancer cells along with some healthy bone marrow cells, and it is at this stage that the new, healthy marrow or PBSCs will be given.

The healthy marrow or PBSCs are introduced through the catheter; they will then travel through the bloodstream to the bone marrow, where they begin making red and white blood cells and platelets.

It takes between 14 and 30 days after the transplant for the transplanted stem cells to manufacture sufficient white blood cells to fight infection and to make other blood cells. Your child will be at higher risk for infections, anaemia, and bleeding during this period.

Complete recovery of your child’s immune system can take 1 to 2 years after an autologous, allogeneic, or syngeneic transplant. It may be necessary for your child to remain in a sterile hospital room to avoid infection during this time. Supportive care, which includes blood transfusions and antibiotics, will be given.

Supportive Care

After undergoing BMT or PBSCT, your child may be required to remain in the hospital for 1 to 2 months (sometimes longer), although outpatient BMT can be done for children with brain tumours. Children receiving BMT or PBSCT may need supportive care.

See the charts for more information on side effects from chemotherapy and radiation therapy.


Graft-Versus-Host Disease

Graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) sometimes occurs in patients who receive bone marrow or peripheral stem cells from a donor. GVHD occurs when donated stem cells realise they are in a different body and attack the patient’s tissues, such as the liver, skin, or digestive tract.

GVHD can be mild or severe, and can occur any time after the transplant – even years later. The doctor may give your child medication to reduce the risk of GVHD and to treat the problem if it occurs.

Supportive Care for BMT & PBSCT

Problem Supportive Care Provided
Low counts of all types of blood cells
  • Isolation from people with infectious diseases
  • Transfusion with blood products, including platelets and red blood cells
  • Treatment with proteins that increase the number of white blood cells
  • Intravenous antibiotics
  • Isolation from other people
Gastrointestinal Infections
  • Low-bacteria diet
  • Mouth care
  • Liquid antibiotics
Difficulty eating enough food
  • Intravenous nutrition-giving nutrients through a vein


Remember, if you are not sure of anything, speak to a professional on your child’s oncology treatment team; they will be only too glad to help give you information or allay any fears you or your child may have regarding the treatment.

You are not alone in this; there are many individuals out there able and willing to lend a hand, some support, or even just listen – do not be afraid to reach out for help!

Do some research on the internet, reach out to an organisation like Little Fighters Cancer Trust for a bit of support and information and/or access to resources that will help you find out more and make an informed decision regarding your child’s treatment.

This article concludes Part 5 of this series of articles: Different Types of Treatment and Possible Side-Effects of that treatment.

Part 6 of this series of articles will deal with Complementary and Alternative Medicine Treatment (CAM)


About LFCT

CHILDHOOD CANCER and CHILDHOOD CANCER AWARENESS Little Fighters Cancer Trust is a non-profit Childhood Cancer support organisation that offers support and aid to Children with Cancer and their families. When a child is diagnosed with cancer it affects the whole family. One of the parents, usually the mother, must give up their job to care for the child and this creates financial problems for the family. In South Africa especially the majority of these families are not well-to-do; many of them are rural. A diagnosis of cancer can wipe out any family’s finances, let alone a poor family. The costs of special medications, special diets, hospital stays, transport to and from the hospital or clinic and accommodation and food costs for the mother who spends most of the time at her child’s bedside are astronomical. These are the people and problems that fall through the cracks, and these are the people that Little Fighters Cancer Trust has pledged to help in any way possible. LFCT takes a holistic approach to assisting the Children with Cancer and their Families, with the main aim to be the preservation of individual dignity and pride. Little Fighters Cancer Trust also focuses on promotion and advocacy of National Childhood Cancer Awareness in an effort to increase awareness of Early Warning Signs of Childhood Cancer. This would result in earlier diagnosis, giving the Child with Cancer more of a chance at Treatment and Survival. See "About" for more Background info

Posted on 16 January, 2015, in Articles, Blog and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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