If you have cancer and find yourself feeling tired, short of breath, and lightheaded, you may also be anemic. Anemia is a common side effect of certain cancer treatments, and in some cases, cancer itself can cause anemia.
Anemia is the most common blood disorder in the United States, and according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. It affects over 3 million Americans. If you’re anemic, your body does not have enough red blood cells, which are responsible for carrying oxygen to tissues in your body. Mild anemia may not present any symptoms, but moderate anemia causes weakness and headaches, among other symptoms, while severe anemia can be life-threatening.
If you are undergoing treatment for cancer, your doctor should check to see if your red blood cell count or hemoglobin levels are low, especially if you are exhibiting signs of anemia. The normal level in men is 15 grams per deciliter of blood (g/DL). In women, it’s 12g/DL. If you have below-normal hemoglobin, your healthcare team may perform other blood tests to identify the cause of the problem.
A possible cause of anemia is an underlying iron or vitamin deficiency, which may be unrelated to cancer. Your doctor will determine why you are deficient and may prescribe iron or vitamin supplements. Anemia could also be related to another chronic illness of yours such as lupus and other autoimmune diseases.
The Link Between Anemia and Cancer Treatments
According to the National Anemia Action Council, almost all patients receiving chemotherapy drugs for cancer are mildly anemic. Moreover, as much as 80 percent develop a more serious health issue. The form of chemotherapy you’re receiving, your cancer stage, and your overall health play a significant role in whether you will or will not have anemia.
Chemotherapy drugs target and eliminate fast-dividing cells in the body, regardless if they are cancerous or not, says Zora R. Rogers, MD, a pediatric hematologist-oncologist at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Cells found in the bone marrow, where your blood cells are made, are especially sensitive to chemotherapy.
Chemotherapy reduces the bone marrow’s ability to produce new blood cells, said Dr. Rogers. As a result, you become anemic. If hemoglobin levels drop to 8 g/DL or lower in adult men and women, transfusion of red blood cells may become necessary, explained Rogers.
Erythropoietin for Combating Cancer-Related Anemia
Doctors may give erythropoiesis-stimulating agents (ESAs) to those who develop anemia due to chemotherapy in an attempt to boost red blood cell production and minimize the need for blood transfusions. Erythropoietin is a hormone in the kidneys. It signals your bone marrow to create more red blood cells when needed.
However, recent studies have been questioning the safety and effectiveness of ESAs, including darbepoetin alfa (Aranesp) and epoetin alfa (Procrit, Epogen). A 2012 study linked ESAs to the occurrence of potentially fatal blood clots in people with metastatic breast cancer. As such, if you are anemic, talk to your doctor about the potential benefits and risks of ESAs before taking them.
Aside from chemotherapy drugs, radiation therapy to certain areas of the body may damage the bone marrow and cause anemia, reported a study published in the National Library of Medicine.
Why Cancer Causes Anemia
In some cases, anemia occurs because of cancer or one of its complications. Generally, cancer patients’ red blood cells deteriorate faster compared to healthy individuals. Moreover, the bone marrow cannot immediately produce more red blood cells to replace the deteriorated ones. Cancer can impede your body’s ability to make red blood cells at a normal rate or intervene with your body’s ability to utilize stored iron.
Cancers That Cause Anemia
The type of cancer you have may make you more susceptible to becoming anemic. Here are the cancers most closely linked with anemia:
- Cancers involving the bone marrow. Blood cancers such as leukemia, multiple myeloma, and lymphoma inhibit or destroy the bone marrow’s production of healthy blood cells. Other cancers that metastasize or spread to the bone marrow can also cause anemia.
- Cancers that cause blood loss. Some genitourinary, gynecologic, gastrointestinal, and head and neck cancers can cause bleeding that leads to anemia.
Can Anemia Cause Cancer?
Although cancer can cause anemia, anemia alone does not stimulate cancer cells to develop, explained Rogers. However, some inherited bone marrow failure syndromes, such as Fanconi anemia, Shwachman-Diamond syndrome, and Diamond-Blackfan anemia predispose you to cancer. Still, it is not anemia itself that causes cancer. Underlying defective cells are the main culprit in this case. Rogers added that if a malignant disease develops in someone with either of these genetic diseases, it is usually squamous cell carcinoma or leukemia.
Managing Anemia Is Important
Causes aside, it’s crucial to treat your anemia. Patients with severe anemia may struggle to get their cancer treatments on time and may have to settle for lower doses that will prolong the completion of treatment. Furthermore, people with both anemia and certain cancers may not respond to cancer treatments as well as those who only have cancer.
Even if your anemia does not conflict or interfere with cancer treatment, getting it under control will help replenish your energy levels and improve your overall quality of life.
The Bottom Line
Cancer and anemia are common health issues often thought of separately. However, a significant number of people diagnosed with cancer — about 30 to 90 percent — have anemia as well. If you’re an anemic cancer patient, it’s important to seek treatment for both of these health problems right away for the best possible health outcome.
Anemia and Cancer Treatments That Work
Some of the leading cancer care providers are here at New Hope Unlimited. If you’re looking for a treatment center that addresses all aspects of the physical body and other components of the entire person to provide powerful cancer therapies, choose New Hope. Our caring community will be alongside you every step of the way: from your initial consultation through treatment and survivorship.
Write to us or call us at 480-757-6573 to schedule a consultation and know more about your options.