Lymphoma is a type of cancer which involves the lymphocytes, or immune system cells. While many people are most familiar with the terms Hodgkins or non-Hodgkins lymphoma, there are actually over 70 observed types of lymphomas, and these terms are currently being phased out of medical literature. A lymphoma typically shows itself as a solid tumor in the lymph nodes, although other variations exist.
Typically, lymphomas were treated with either chemotherapy or radiation, or a combination of the two in severe or widespread cases. However, thanks to advances in medical science, stem cell therapy is now being recognized as a potentially life saving alternative or complement to these methods of treatment.
In the case of a lymphoma patient, stem cells are usually harvested from the patient themselves, typically from the blood or in certain cases the bone marrow. These cells, called autologous because they come from the patient’s own body, are considered the best choice because there is little to no risk of the body rejecting them as foreign invaders. If autologous cells are not an option, an exact donor match is sought. Umbilical cord cells are also becoming a popular method of obtaining suitable cells when autologous cells are not available.
Once harvested, the blood is put through a process known as apheresis to separate the stem cells. These cells are then frozen until they are needed. During this time, the patient will undergo chemotherapy, radiation treatments or both, killing all cancer cells in the body.
After they have been treated, the stem cells are introduced into the patient’s body through a blood transfusion. Once in the body, the cells will enter into the bone marrow and begin to produce new lymphocytes.
In an ideal scenario, this is the end of treatment, except for close monitoring to ensure that no rejection or secondary infections occur.
Mini Stem Cell Transplants
In some cases, the most common being a patient over the age of fifty five, the body can’t handle traditional lymphoma treatment. In these cases, what’s known as a “mini” stem cell transplant may be attempted. This is still a very experimental practice. In a mini transplant, lower doses of chemotherapy and radiation are used, killing some but not all of the cancerous cells. A stem cell transplant is then performed. The new cells effectively create a new immune system within the body, one which sees the remaining cancer cells as foreign invaders and kills them off.
There are side effects to this treatment, which is really just a creative use of graft-vs-host disease. It is medically known as the graft-vs-lymphoma effect. Graft-vs-host disease is an unwanted side effect of receiving donor organs or cells, but in this case it can be a way for older individuals to successfully beat lymphoma. Be aware that this is a very costly and experimental treatment, one which few insurance companies will cover.
Things to Consider
Patients should remember that any stem cell treatment is still considered experimental by most insurance companies. Before choosing to undergo this treatment, it’s essential to check with your insurance company, determine what they will and will not cover, and prepare for expenses. It’s just as essential to choose a hospital which has experience in the precise type of stem cell transplant or therapy you’re considering. This practice is still extremely new in the world of medicine, and for the best possible outcome it’s important to see a doctor familiar with the procedure. Fill out the form to the right and we can answer your questions!