Surviving blood cancers means drastic stem cell treatment. Yet a decade later, survivors have surprisingly good health.

Yes, they still have some serious health issues. But after having their cancerous blood cells killed off and replaced by stem cells, survivors' quality of life is about the same as that of people who never needed a stem cell transplant.

The surprising news comes from Karen Syrjala, PhD, and colleagues at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. The researchers report the 10-year follow-up of 137 stem cell transplant survivors in the Sept. 20 issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

In many areas of health, our survivors are indistinguishable from people who had not had blood cancer or a stem cell transplant, Syrjala says in a news release.

Frist Backs Stem Cell Research

Surprisingly Good Health

People with bone cancers can be cured by aggressive treatments that kill off their cancer cells -- as well as their other blood cells. They would die if they weren't rescued by stem cell transplants -- bone marrow or blood stem cells harvested from donors. The stem cells divide and become new blood cells.

Earlier studies of stem cell transplant survivors found a lot more health problems. But those studies included people who underwent the cancer treatment as little as two years earlier. Syrjala's team looked at 137 people who got transplants from 1987 to 1990. Almost all had leukemia or lymphoma. They compared them to an equal number of age-matched people who never had stem cell transplants.

In many ways, they were just like anyone else. The survivors visited doctors no more than the comparison group, nor were they more likely to be hospitalized. And survivors were no more likely to suffer from asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, osteoporosis, or an underactive thyroid. Their mental health, marital satisfaction, and employment were also no worse.

However, stem cell transplant survivors were more likely to have:

--Muscle and skeletal problems such as stiffness and cramping

--Poor long-term sexual health

--Increased urinary frequency and leaking

--More use of antidepressants and antianxiety medications

Good News After Relapse

These relatively young survivors -- their average age was 36 -- had lower-than-expected rates of bone loss and thyroid problems.

More good news came from the 10 percent of survivors who'd had a cancer relapse after their initial treatment and then experienced full remission. Relapse is a supposed to be a bad sign for future health. But these patients were not less healthy than other transplant survivors.

"The fact that patients can relapse and still have healthy, full lives 10 years later and look like everyone else who has gone through a transplant without relapse is really good news," Syrjala says.

By Daniel J. DeNoon, reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD

SOURCES: Syrjala, K.L. Journal of Clinical Oncology, Sept. 20, 2005; vol 23: pp 6596-6606. News release, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.