Anemia in Patients Who Have Cancer

Anemia (uh-NEE-me-uh) is a condition that occurs when your red blood cell count is below normal.

Red blood cells are created in your body’s bone marrow. The blood cells contain a substance called hemoglobin (HEE-muh-globe-in). This substance carries oxygen from your lungs to all parts of your body. Muscles, organs, and tissues in the body need oxygen to stay alive. When your red blood cell count is low, body tissues do not get as much oxygen as they need to work the right way.

Your doctor must order a blood test to find out if you have anemia.

Sometimes, anemia is a result of chemotherapy or radiation therapy. These treatments for cancer can slow down the body’s natural ability to make red blood cells. There are other causes of anemia, including certain cancers of the bone marrow.

In some cases, your body recovers from anemia on its own. In other cases, your doctor may want to take steps to build up your red blood cell count. He or she can do this by giving you a blood transfusion or special medicines.

Signs of anemia

The most common symptoms of anemia are:

  • Paleness of the skin
  • Tiredness (fatigue)
  • Overall weakness

What to do if you have anemia

If your red blood cell count is low, you should:

  • Save your energy. Rest when you are tired.
  • Set up a regular sleep schedule, and stick to it. Try to go to bed and wake up at the same times every day. Take 1 or 2 short naps during the daytime. These should be about 30 to 40 minutes each. Don’t take long naps.
  • Ask family and friends to help you with chores such as shopping, housework, or cooking.
  • Take it slow when doing any activity. Try not to do too much, too fast, or too hard.
  • If you feel dizzy, lie flat for a few min¬utes. To get up, rise slowly from a lying position to a sitting position, then to a standing position.
  • Get help when walking, if needed.
  • Drink at least 8 glasses of fluids daily, unless your doctor has limited the amount you can drink because of another medical condition. Drink water or nutritious beverages such as juice, milk, and instant breakfast drinks instead of soda and coffee.
  • Eat a well-balanced diet. This should include foods with protein, vitamins, and iron. Some foods that are rich in iron are eggs, red meat, liver, and spinach.
  • Try eating 3 small meals, then snacking on healthy foods in between. Nutritious snacks include cheese, peanut butter, hard-boiled eggs, yogurt, and fruit.
  • Talk to your doctor before taking any vitamin tablets, iron pills, or other supplements.

Signs that are serious

Tell your doctor or nurse if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • Tiredness or fatigue
  • Overall weakness
  • Unsteadiness when walking
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Headaches
  • Ringing in your ears
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Feeling confused or having trouble concentrating
  • Fast heart beats (palpitations)
  • Shortness of breath with activity

If you have any of the following symptoms, call your doctor’s office immediately for advice:

  • Shortness of breath when you are at rest
  • Chest pain
  • Fainting