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Thrombocytopenia in Mesothelioma Patients

Low blood counts ofen plague chemotherapy patients. Platelets have a life of only about ten days. Thrombocytopenia, low platelet count, occurs when the bone marrow doesn’t produce enough platelets to replace the ones that normally die off. Chemotherapy works by killing rapidly reproducing cells such as hair cells, digestive cells, bone marrow cells, and ultimately cancer cells. So, when chemotherapy is given, the bone marrow cells that produce the platelets are also attacked.

Platelets are responsible for clotting the blood. When platelets are low, the patient is at risk for bleeding and hemorrhaging. The longer the period of time the platelets are low, and the lower the count, the higher the risk for bleeding. When the platelet count drops from 50,000 to below 10,000, the frequency of life threatening bleeding goes up from about 5% to about 40%. So, as the platelet level drops, the risk goes up.

Another result of low platelets, besides bleeding, is delaying chemotherapy. The effectiveness of chemotherapy treatment hinges not just on the medications, but also on a schedule. A specific schedule of treatment is used to give patients the best possible chance of survival. When platelet counts are too low to administer chemotherapy, the patient may need to delay treatment or require a lower dose, compromising the optimal chemotherapy schedule.

Doctors often seek to raise platelet levels by administering a platelet transfusion. However, as with any transfusion, the patient is at risk of developing an allergic reaction or an infection. Most patients’ concern is about contracting the HIV virus. With the current high screening standards, the chances of contracting HIV from a platelet transfusion are rare. However, the chance of contracting the hepatitis virus is 1 in 3,000. The patient and doctor must weigh the benefits of a transfusion against the possible risks.

In addition to a platelet transfusion, an effective medication that will stimulate the bone marrow to make more platelets has shown promise during clinical trials. The medication has helped to prevent thrombocytopenia and enables chemotherapy patients to stay on their schedule and in turn, increase their chances for survival.

Chemotherapy is filled with side effects. But research has improved the quality of medications that are used to minimize the side effects and can suggest better strategies for dealing with them. Oncologists continually learn more about the nature of cancer and how to improve the survival rates of their patients.