It’s normal to experience lots of emotional ups and downs before, during and after your loved one’s bone marrow or stem cell transplant.
You might feel uncertain about the future, guilty about wanting to do more to help them, or even just overwhelmed if you’re providing lots of practical care.
‘I felt overwhelmed by everything that was happening. No one could say “it’s definitely going to be OK” and there was nothing I could do to change that.’
Una, whose husband Val had a stem cell transplant in 2007
But there are also lots of positive things that can happen after a bone marrow or stem cell transplant. Many families gradually come to terms with a ‘new normal’. Some find that the transplant brings them closer together and makes their relationships stronger.
‘There were good days and bad days, and we got through it one day at a time. We’re now out the other side and we are stronger than ever before.’
Helen, whose partner Nilush had a cord blood transplant in 2013
In this section you will find information on the following:
It helps to know what to expect. Making plans and asking your medical team questions can boost your confidence – and the answers could be useful for your loved one, as well.
Get financial and practical support
If you provide ‘regular and substantial’ care for someone over 18, you have the right to a carer’s assessment from the social services department at your local council. This is a chance to discuss what help you might need as a carer.
Read our blog with Carers UK for more information.
Practical support from your friends and family can give you more time and energy to support your loved one.
‘People are so generous, always asking, “How can I help? What can I do?’” And you get overwhelmed, because life doesn’t stop just because this thing has happened to you both. So sit down and write a list. If you need your garden waste collected and taken to the dump, put it on the list.’
Mariacristina’s husband George had a transplant in 2014; read more about her story in her blog
Relatives and friends may want to come and visit, but it’s OK to say ‘no’ if it’s not the right time. You could ask a close friend or family member to be your spokesperson, catch up with them every so often, and ask them to send out an update to your wider friends and family.
Some people find that this gives them a positive focus at a difficult time. You could encourage friends and family to join the donor register, set up a charity fundraising page or volunteer. Find out more about getting involved with Anthony Nolan.
‘I wish that I had asked for support at the time. It wouldn’t have made Cherryl better, but it would have made things easier for both of us.’
Richard, whose wife Cherryl had a stem cell transplant in 2007
Many partners feel guilty about admitting to their stress because they feel they have to always be strong for the person who has been unwell. However, it’s perfectly OK to talk to them about feeling this way and it will benefit your relationship in the long term.
Enjoy a bit of ‘me’ time It’s really important that you find the time and space to enjoy things independently from your partner. This might be simply phoning a friend for a chat or re-starting a forgotten hobby. Nobody will judge you for taking some time for yourself; it will reinvigorate you and give you fresh energy to tackle the challenges that lie ahead. You need to look after yourself as well as your loved one. If this has been lacking in your life recently, talk to your partner about how you are feeling – because they love you, and they will understand.
You need support too, if you would prefer to talk to somebody else about how you are feeling, there are options available. Your partner’s transplant team will be able to put you in contact with a counsellor or therapist. Alternatively you may benefit from sharing your story with people going through a similar experience. Your hospital and various charities organise local support groups you can get involved with. You can also get advice from our online community, the Anthony Nolan patients and families forum.
‘If you’re struggling, there are other people out there who can help you. Just reach out when you need it, and don’t feel like you’ll be a burden.’
Read Sam’s blog about supporting his dad through a transplant
Remember - it’s ok for you to take breaks, in the long run this will stand you in better stead to support your partner or family member.
It’s important to look after your own health and wellbeing as well – regular exercise and relaxation can help. You can also often access therapies such as massage, meditation or aromatherapy through your local cancer support or information centre.
Macmillan Cancer Support have more information for carers.
'I was lucky enough to get sessions with a counsellor, as I really needed to talk to someone outside of what was happening to us. The sessions really helped me to cope with uncertainty. All the unknowns were such a struggle for me.'
Read Mariacristina’s blog about caring for a loved one through a bone marrow transplant
Having a stem cell transplant can change the normal pattern of your life and affect relationships, friendships and roles within your family. We have plenty of advice and support to help you address these changes within your family life and sex and relationships.
If you have children or grandchildren, you might find it tricky to talk to them about what’s happening. We’ve produced an illustrated book for children, Lucy and the Good Soldiers, to help explain this. Macmillan Cancer Support has more information about talking to children about cancer and you could also ask your transplant team for more advice.
‘In my experience, one of the things that helps patients and loved ones is accepting that the illness and the transplant have changed the person who’s had it. These can be both positive and negative changes, but there’s a difference.’
Read our blog with counsellor Phil
Helping your partner recover from their transplant has probably become the most important thing in your life because of how much you care for them. Although you are probably happy to do it, it can still be difficult and demanding, especially if you also have to juggle it with earning a living and your family. Just as your partner has had to get used to being less independent, it can take time for you to adjust to your new supportive role. It’s understandable that you might find it hard to cope with this responsibility, while also worrying whether they are getting better.
It may help for you and your partner to develop a routine – make time for dinner, time to relax, and schedule in times when you’ll speak to other family members and friends or respond to their emails. This can help things feel more secure and predictable.
You might feel helpless or uncertain about how you can help your loved one through these tough times. Here are a few practical things which you could do if you feel up to it:
‘In addition to being beside my daughter, I also wrote cards to her. She was often too tired to talk but could read my words of love and encouragement whenever she picked up a card.’
Linda, whose daughter Helen had a stem cell transplant in 2013
What if their transplant doesn’t work?
Despite the best efforts of your relative, you and those around them, the transplant may not work. It may be that the cells from their donor have not been accepted by their body (graft rejection or graft failure) or that their original condition has come back (relapse). Their transplant team will be monitoring you closely for both these things and often there will be other treatments available.
This can be a really tough time for you and your family, but your transplant team will talk you through the next steps. Find out more about different treatment options.
In some cases, your loved one may not be able to have further treatment for their illness. Open discussions between with the medical team are an important way of making sure everyone understands the options and agrees on the best approach.
If someone you love has died during or after treatment, it can be devastating. You may experience a lot of strong emotions that can be difficult to cope with – shock, pain, anger, guilt, depression, and longing. Grief is a natural process, but it can be overwhelming.
‘I don't think the pain of missing someone ever goes away – I think you just get better at talking about it. The transplant offered hope at a very difficult time and gave me precious months with my sister.’
Annabella, whose sister Millie had a transplant but sadly relapsed and died in 2004
Some people cope best with help and support from family and friends. But it’s also normal to need some outside help. There’s support available through the Cruse Bereavement Care charity, the Child Death Helpline, and Macmillan Cancer Support. You can also find local bereavement support through the NHS.
Information published: 13/10/16
Next review due: 13/10/19