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Managing Anemia with Mesothelioma

Anemia results from having too few blood cells carrying oxygen to organs and tissues in the body. There are many potential causes of this condition, but having mesothelioma and being treated for cancer are big ones. Chemotherapy and radiation treatments can trigger anemia, and if it is left untreated it can become very serious and dangerous. Know the signs of anemia. Your medical team can help you manage this condition.

anemia and mesothelioma

What is Anemia?

Anemia occurs when you do not have enough red blood cells, the cells in the blood that carry oxygen throughout the body. The hemoglobin protein in red blood cells contains iron, which binds to oxygen molecules to carry it to all the tissues of the body. Without adequate oxygen you may begin to feel weak, tired, and fatigued. There are a few possible root causes of anemia: your bone marrow is not making enough red blood cells, your body is destroying red blood cells too quickly, or you have lost a lot of blood.

Being anemic does more than simply make you feel tired. If left untreated, there can be many negative consequences. If anemia is severe, if it is long-lasting, or if it is left untreated, it can cause serious organ damage, including damage to the brain and heart. In very severe cases, anemia can be fatal.

How Having Mesothelioma Can Lead to Anemia

Anemia in cancer patients is not uncommon. The cause is typically a combination of the cancer itself and the treatment for the cancer. In many people with mesothelioma, the treatments are major factors in causing anemia. Both chemotherapy drugs and radiation therapy can contribute by causing a condition called myelosuppression. This is when the activity in bone marrow is decreased resulting in reduced production of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets.

Certain risk factors may make you more vulnerable to anemia as you undergo treatment for mesothelioma. These include being given platinum-based chemotherapy medications and already having low red blood cell levels before starting treatment. Other causes of anemia may also contribute to the condition or worsen it:

  • Blood loss
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Organ damage
  • Kidney disease
  • Sickle cell disease
  • Having low iron levels

Symptoms of Anemia

Anemia can be uncomfortable but also damaging and dangerous. It is important to recognize signs of anemia so that it can be addressed as soon as possible. It is manageable, even while undergoing treatment. The early and most common signs of anemia are fatigue and weakness. Anemia may also cause shortness of breath, irregular heartbeats, pale skin, chest pains, cold hands and feet, lightheadedness, and headaches. Report any symptoms of anemia to your medical team as soon as you experience them.

Managing and Treating Mesothelioma-Related Anemia

Your oncologist will know if the treatment you are receiving has the potential to cause anemia and will likely screen you from time to time to check on your red blood cell count. However, it is important to be proactive and let your medical team know if you are experiencing any of the symptoms so that you can get the right treatment. In severe cases it may even be necessary to change your cancer treatment.

If your anemia isn’t severe, your doctor may recommend eating more iron-rich foods, like dark green, leafy vegetables, raisins, prunes, sweet potatoes, beans, red meat, and enriched cereals and breads. Supplements of iron may also help. If dietary changes don’t help, your doctor may want to give you a blood transfusion.

A blood transfusion is usually a safe way to quickly increase red blood cells, which has the effect of rapid symptom relief. It is also a quick way to ensure all organs are getting oxygen so that damage is prevented. Complications of blood transfusions are uncommon but may include an immune system reaction to the blood, a lung injury, infections, and circulatory overload, when the heart cannot handle the influx of blood.

Medications may also be used to treat cancer-related anemia. A class of drugs called erythropoiesis-stimulating agents, or ESAs, work by stimulating the production of red blood cells. They mimic a hormone, erythropoietin, made by the kidneys. There are risks of using these drugs, usually administered as shots, but the benefits are also significant, and they reduce the need for blood transfusions.

Examples of ESAs used for cancer patients with anemia include Procrit and Aranesp, a longer-acting form of Procrit. They are effective at reducing the need for transfusions, but they also pose a risk for serious side effects. They can cause 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

In addition to treatment from your medical team, there are things you can do to manage anemia and its symptoms. Resting as much as needed, for instance, is important, as is getting adequate sleep. Get help doing chores and other activities and when you are active, take frequent breaks to rest. Stay well hydrated, and eat a well-balanced diet. If you experience a dizzy spell, take a moment to sit or lie down, as being dizzy can lead you to have a fall and an injury.

Anemia can be mild but it can also become severe and life-threatening, especially if your body is already struggling to fight mesothelioma. If you are being treated for cancer, be sure to know what the signs of anemia are, know your risk level, and talk to your doctor about any symptoms you experience and possible treatment and management strategies.

Page edited by 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.

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