Recovery After Bone Marrow Transplant: What to Expect
Bone marrow transplantation can be lifesaving. It can also cause you to experience strong, grief-like feelings. Balancing the emotions of a stem cell transplant with your physical needs during the recovery period can be challenging. Discover what to expect during bone marrow transplant recovery, including what physical and emotional side effects to anticipate. This may help you cope better after your treatment.
Bone Marrow Transplant Recovery Period
During the first 30 days after a stem cell transplant, your care team will monitor you for signs the transfused cells have migrated to the bone marrow and begun producing new, healthy cells. This process is called “engraftment.” You may hear the term “bone marrow transplant engraft” levels as your team monitors your blood for populations of white blood cells and platelets (among other components). Sometimes engraftment happens later than 30 days post-transplant. Your care team will keep you informed about how the process is going.
You may need to stay in the hospital until engraftment is well under way. (If you are not hospitalized during the engraftment period, you still need to stay close to the hospital for the frequent checkups.) Then, once you go home from the hospital, you still have a lengthy recovery period ahead of you. You may feel weak and tired for six months to a year after your procedure. The recovery time after bone marrow transplant varies for every individual. Stay in touch with your care team for support and guidance during this period.
Your body is very susceptible to infection throughout the entire recovery period. You may be on antibiotics for the first couple of weeks to prevent infection. If you are not already in the hospital, call your doctor right away if you develop any of these signs and symptoms of infection or complications:
- Bloody or frequent diarrhea
- Difficulty breathing while at rest
- Extreme weakness
- Heat, redness or swelling around any IV (needle) insertion point
- Inability to eat or drink
- Nausea that prevents you from eating or drinking anything
- Severe abdominal pain
- Severe headache
- Severe vomiting
One relatively common side effect of stem cell transplant when the donor is another person (whether a relative or a stranger) is graft-versus-host disease (GVHD). This can occur as late as six months after transplant. Be alert to these signs and symptoms of GVHD so you can notify your doctor right away:
- Abdominal pain that may be accompanied by cramps, diarrhea, nausea or vomiting
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin or the whites of the eyes)
GVHD can be treated with medicines that reduce the immune system response. Sometimes, GVHD becomes chronic, which means you may need to take immunosuppressant drugs for the rest of your life.
It’s possible you will be in and out of the hospital through your transplant recovery. This can be a discouraging part of the process; but, some side effects of bone marrow transplant, such as GVHD, anemia or infection, may require treatment in a hospital.
Managing the Emotions of Bone Marrow Transplant
You may feel elated about the prospect of receiving a bone marrow transplant that extends your life while at the same time finding you feel depressed about the situation, too. This emotional rollercoaster is entirely normal for people going through a bone marrow transplant.
During bone marrow transplant, you may frequently be isolated—both inside and outside the hospital. While you may understand this is to reduce your chance of getting an infection, you nonetheless might feel sad or depressed over it. After transplantation, you may struggle to cope with all the lifestyle changes you need to make to ensure your health.
All of these feelings are normal, and if you anticipate them (or are prone to depression) you can seek out support in advance of your transplant. Your care provider may be able to recommend a local or virtual support group where you can discuss your feelings with other transplant recipients. Several bone marrow organizations offer support through their websites.
Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to express yourself to your care providers before, during and after your bone marrow transplant. They have helped many people before you. Your team can make sure you receive the right care and resources for your emotional well-being, as well as for the transplant itself. With the appropriate physical and emotional care, you can thrive during and after receiving new stem cells.