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Anemia is a condition that occurs when there are not enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen to organs and tissues in the body. Mesothelioma and cancer treatments can increase your risks for developing anemia. Chemotherapy and radiation treatments can trigger anemia which can become serious and dangerous if left untreated. If you have been diagnosed with mesothelioma or any other cancer, it is important to know the signs of anemia. Your medical team can help you manage this condition.
What is Anemia?
Anemia occurs when your body lacks enough healthy red blood cells to transport oxygen throughout the body. The hemoglobin protein in red blood cells contains iron. This iron binds to oxygen molecules to carry them to all tissues of the body. When these tissues do not get enough oxygen, you may feel weak and fatigued.
There are several root causes of anemia. One is that the bone marrow is not producing enough red blood cells. Another is that the body is destroying red blood cells too quickly. Loss of blood can also cause you to become anemic.
If anemia goes untreated, can do serious damage. Severe anemia can damage organs, including the brain and heart. In very severe cases, anemia can be fatal.
How Having Mesothelioma Can Lead to Anemia
Anemia is common in cancer patients. The cause is typically a combination of the cancer itself and the treatment. Both chemotherapy drugs and radiation therapy can cause myelosuppression, which decreases red blood cell production in bone marrow, as well as production of white blood cells and platelets.
Certain risk factors make you more vulnerable to anemia during cancer treatment. Platinum-based chemotherapy medications can cause anemia. Other conditions that can contribute to anemia are:
- Blood loss
- Nutritional deficiencies
- Organ damage
- Kidney disease
- Sickle cell disease
- Low iron levels
Symptoms of Anemia
Learn the signs of anemia so you can watch for it and get treatment if needed. Anemia is generally manageable, even during cancer treatment. The earliest and most common signs of anemia are fatigue and weakness. Anemia may also cause shortness of breath, irregular heartbeat, pale skin, chest pain, cold hands and feet, lightheadedness, and headaches. Report any symptoms of anemia to your medical team immediately.
Managing and Treating Mesothelioma-Related Anemia
Your oncologist will know if your cancer treatment can cause anemia and will periodically check your red blood cell count. However, it is important to be proactive. If you develop symptoms, inform your medical team as soon as possible so that you can get proper treatment. In severe cases, it may be necessary to change your cancer treatment.
If your anemia is not severe, your doctor may recommend dietary changes to increase your red blood cell count. Eating iron-rich foods, like leafy green vegetables, raisins, prunes, sweet potatoes, beans, red meat, and enriched cereals and breads can improve anemia in many cases. Iron supplements may also help.
If dietary changes don’t work, your doctor may advise a blood transfusion. A blood transfusion is usually a safe way to quickly increase red blood cells. It is also a quick way to ensure all organs are getting oxygen to prevent permanent damage. Complications of blood transfusions are uncommon but may include an immune system reaction, lung injury, infection, and circulatory overload, when the heart cannot handle the influx of blood.
Cancer-related anemia can also be treated with medication. Drugs called erythropoiesis-stimulating agents, or ESAs, stimulate the body’s red blood cell production. These drugs mimic a hormone, erythropoietin, made by the kidneys. Usually administered by injection, ESAs ave some risks but may reduce the need for blood transfusions.
ESAs used for anemic cancer patients include Procrit and Aranesp, a longer-acting form of Procrit. These drugs may have serious side effects, including seizures, high blood pressure, and even severe anemia. They may also trigger severe allergic reactions in some people. More common and less serious side effects include joint and muscle pain, cough, nausea, vomiting, fever, headache, and itching.
Self-Management of Anemia
There are things you can do to help manage anemia and its symptoms. Getting sleep and rest is important. If possible, get help with chores. If you must be active, take frequent breaks to rest. Stay well hydrated, and eat a balanced diet. If you feel dizzy, sit or lie down to prevent a fall that could lead to injury.
While anemia is typically mild, it can become severe, especially if your body is already struggling with mesothelioma. If you are being treated for cancer, be sure to know the signs of anemia. Also, talk to your doctor about any symptoms you experience, as well as management strategies.
Page Edited by Patient Advocate Dave Foster
Dave has been a mesothelioma Patient Advocate for over 10 years. He consistently attends all major national and international mesothelioma meetings. In doing so, he is able to stay on top of the latest treatments, clinical trials, and research results. He also personally meets with mesothelioma patients and their families and connects them with the best medical specialists and legal representatives available.