Anemia is a condition that is defined as a reduced red blood cell count. Lack of red blood cells can be caused by a number of things, including iron deficiency, vitamin deficiency and certain chronic diseases such as HIV or AIDS. Anemia is also a common side effect related to cancer and chemotherapy treatments.
Chemotherapy can reduce the patient’s bone marrow’s capacity to make red blood cells. A normal hemoglobin count is 14-18 for men and 12-16 for women, but chemotherapy patients often have much lower levels of hemoglobin. When there are too few red blood cells, body tissues do not get enough oxygen. This low iron blood, or low hemoglobin concentration is called anemia. Anemics often feel weak and exhausted. Other symptoms include shortness of breath, and dizziness or feeling faint.
Dangers of Low Blood Cell Count
Lack of red blood cells is a serious chemotherapy side effect that needs to be monitored carefully by your physician. Red blood cells are responsible for carrying oxygen throughout your body. As a result of anemia, you may experience constant fatigue. It may also cause your heart to work harder in order to properly pump enough oxygen to other parts of your body. Because of this, a heightened resting heart rate is one of the most common symptoms of the side effect.
Other common side effects associated with anemia include shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, chest pain, dizzy spells, pale skin and swelling at the hands and feet. All of these symptoms are a result of inadequate supplies of oxygen reaching body tissues. In severe cases, this lack of oxygen may eventually lead to death. As part of most chemotherapy treatment courses, patients’ blood cell counts are measured.
More than 60% of patients undergoing chemotherapy get anemia in some level. Anemia is a major contributor to fatigue experienced by so many cancer patients.
Monitoring Blood Counts
Throughout your chemotherapy, doctors will routinely monitor blood counts to ensure that anemia does not become too severe. If blood counts dip too low, chemotherapy doses or treatments may need to be reduced. While chemo drugs kill off cells in the bone marrow, the process is not permanent. Given an adequate break from chemo administration, new bone marrow cells will form and subsequently produce new red blood cells. As such, once chemotherapy treatment is completed, the patient typically need not worry about long-term anemia.
The common test used by doctors to test for anemia is called a complete blood count (CBC). A CBC measures the prevalence of three different blood cells – white blood cells, platelets and red blood cells. In terms of red blood cells, healthy men typically return a count between 14.5 and 18 grams per deciliter (g/dL). Healthy red blood cell counts in females fall between 12 and 16 g/dL.
Any CBC that returns a blood cell count below 12 g/dL indicates anemia. Red blood cell counts between 10 and 12 g/dL are considered mild anemia. Moderate anemia is any count between 8 and 10 g/dL. A red blood cell count below 8 g/dL is considered severe.
Anemia can be addressed by reducing chemotherapy treatments or doses. Vitamin supplements such as iron and folic acid may help reduce some of the effects of anemia. Eating iron-rich food may also be beneficial. In severe cases, a blood transfusion may be necessary to quickly raise the blood cell count of an individual.
Your doctor may also prescribe anti-anemia drugs that accelerate the production of red blood cells. These drugs simulate a kidney hormone called erythropoietin, which signals growth production within the bone marrow. Approved drugs for the treatment of anemia include Epogen, Procrit and Aranesp. Typically, these drugs effectively boost blood cell counts within a two-week period.
Some cancer patients find they can help cope with anemia by taking frequent naps, limiting activities, eating well, and getting up from lying or sitting positions slowly.
See also: Nadir in chemotherapy