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10 things to consider when you undergo a stem cell transplant

Recovery from a stem cell transplant can take several months. You’ll need support from multiple areas to help you manage side effects, reduce the risk of infection and maintain your quality of life. While your doctor may prescribe antibiotics and other preventive measures, there are also things you can do to help yourself.

The following are a few things to consider when you undergo a stem cell transplant:

  1. Prepare ahead for the hospital stay. Bring a laptop, books, music, movies, relaxation tapes, games and other hobbies to pass the time in the hospital. It can also help to bring reminders of home, such as pictures, a blanket or a pillow. Bring comfortable clothes, such as sweat pants, cotton V-neck T-shirts (for easy port access), socks and slippers.
  2. Establish a support system. Don’t try to do this alone. Designate a family member or friend for logistical support, such as getting to and from appointments, and emotional support as well. It may also help to talk with a professional counselor, join a support group, or contact someone who has undergone a transplant.
  3. Be aware of the signs of infection. After stem cell transplant, be alert to early signs of infection, especially fever. A fever can be a sign of a dangerous situation. If you develop a fever, let your doctor know right away. Notify your health care team if you notice other signs of infection, such as fatigue, sore throat, shortness of breath, redness, pain, swelling, or a sore/wound that doesn’t heal.
  4. Keep your skin clean and dry. Hand washing is an important way to prevent infection. Be sure to wash your hands before eating and touching your face, eyes, nose and mouth. Also, wash your hands after using the bathroom, shaking hands, coughing, or sneezing. Check your skin daily for any changes, including redness or soreness near a central catheter. Let your health care team know if your skin looks or feels different.
  5. Avoid contact with sick people. Until your immune system is stronger, avoid large crowds of people, such as shopping malls or other enclosed public areas. Avoid contact with people who are sick with colds, viruses, or other infections, or who have recently received vaccines. Also, do not share food, drinking glasses, utensils, or other personal items with others.
  6. Practice good oral hygiene. Good dental hygiene prior to a transplant, including proper cleaning of the mouth and teeth, can help reduce complications, such as mouth sores and infections. Use a soft bristled toothbrush to prevent cuts and rinse your mouth often with sterile water or a bland, non-irritating solution. Your dentist can provide guidance on how to safely keep your mouth clean when your blood counts are low.
  7. Maintain proper nutrition and stay hydrated. A healthy, well-balanced diet, including good hydration, can help your body recover from a transplant, fight infection and rebuild tissue. A registered dietitian can help you find foods your body can tolerate. Food safety is also very important at this time. Avoid raw or undercooked foods, including meats, seafood, eggs, vegetables or unpeeled fruits. Also, eat or drink only pasteurized juice, milk, yogurt, cheese, or other dairy products.
  8. Exercise regularly. Once you get approval from your doctor, regular exercise is an important part of the transplant recovery process to build strength and endurance. Try to start out taking short walks and gradually build up to higher levels of activity. A rehabilitation therapist can help determine the type and level of physical activity that is safe and appropriate for you.
  9. Manage stress. Cancer can, naturally, cause a great deal of stress. Ongoing stress can weaken your immune system and make you more susceptible to infection. It’s important to find ways to reduce stress, such as relaxation techniques, distraction, and meditation. A mind-body therapist or spiritual counselor can help you manage stress as well.
  10. Set landmarks for yourself. Recovery from a transplant can be slow going. It may help to set small, realistic goals for each day, such as taking a walk, making a phone call, or having lunch with a friend. Choose future dates for larger goals to celebrate your progress.
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