How a simple blood count can drastically change your treatment course
Kathryn E. Vinson, MS, CCRC
Recognizing Early Signs of Anemia – In several of my previous articles, I have talked to you about how my life was changed and my career path influenced by the people in my life that have been affected by cancer. So, you can imagine how thrilled I was when the very first trial that I was assigned as a young clinical research professional was a study to help combat anemia in cancer patients. As we know, anemia affects cancer patients at a high rate for many reasons. Anemia is not only a result of the effects of chemotherapy on cells that produce our red blood cells, but also a result of nutritional deficits that can be caused by food aversions that many patients experience. Today, I want to talk to you about how to recognize the early symptoms of anemia and how we can combat those to help us in our fight against the monster cancer.
As our doctors tell us, we have to be in the pinnacle of health to fight cancer. But how do we do that when cancer is ravaging our bodies? How do we do that when the treatments that are supposed to heal us keep us from being as healthy as we should be? We must be as knowledgeable as possible about our health and about what our bodies need to fight cancer. In order to do this, we need to know what the treatments do to our bodies.
What is anemia?
Simply put, anemia is a low level red blood cells circulating in our body. You may hear this referred to as “RBCs”, red blood count, hemoglobin, or hematocrit. Many people without cancer deal with anemia every day, but as cancer patients this “simple” disorder can have far reaching consequences. Anemia can come from many different things. It can be a simple dietary deficit, it can result from blood loss, (I was anemic as a pre-teen due to bad nose bleeds!), or it can come from damage to our bone marrow or kidneys.
In cancer patients, the very treatments that are working to save our lives can cause the damage that I just mentioned. As we know, traditional chemotherapy targets rapidly dividing cells such as cancer, but it also can damage our bone marrow – the spongy material inside our bones that produces blood cells. These cells grow rapidly making them susceptible to the effects of chemotherapy.
Early Symptoms of Anemia
So – what can we do as cancer warriors to fight anemia? We have to understand the early signs of anemia. What are those are the signs? The American Cancer Society tells us that signs of anemia include (directly quoted from the ACS):
- Fast heart beat
- Shortness of breath
- Trouble breathing when doing things like walking, climbing stairs, or even talking
- Chest pain
- Swelling in the hands and/or feet
- Pale skin, nail beds, mouth, and gums
- Extreme tiredness (fatigue)
The most common symptom of anemia that people experience is tiredness or fatigue. This may seem weird, so allow me to explain. Our red blood cells are responsible for carrying oxygen from the air we breathe to our tissues. When we are short on red blood cells, we can’t get as much oxygen to our cells as usual. This produces fatigue, but can also put stress on the heart, as well as limiting our body’s natural ability to heal itself.
Okay, so anemia is a real bother – but why is it such a big deal for cancer patients? When our gas tank of red blood cells is low and we can’t heal the way we are supposed to, and the toxicity of our treatments can have greater detrimental effects. We are more susceptible to infections. We can’t heal properly (notice that I keep harping on that? It’s a biggie). If those blood counts drop low enough, doctors are forced to delay treatments or lower dosages.
Fortunately, there are things that you can do to fight anemia. Diet is huge when it comes to fighting cancer. By filling our tank with nutritious, quality foods, we are giving our bodies the tools that it needs to both fight and heal. The foods that help fight anemia contain iron – the key ingredient to making red blood cells. If you aren’t dealing with food aversions, nausea, and vomiting, try to load up on iron containing foods such as these (from the American Cancer Society):
- Dark green leafy vegetables
- Sweet potatoes
- Prunes and raisins
- Dried apricots and peaches
- Meat and fish
- Enriched bread, cereal, and pasta
Iron supplements are also an option, but always discuss any supplements that you take with your physician, as some may interfere with your treatments. Also know that super high dosages of iron can cause constipation. If dietary changes don’t help, or you aren’t able to make them, your doctor may be able to prescribe medicines that help your bone marrow produce more red blood cells.
As always, much love, abundant blessings, and many prayers to all of the cancer warriors and their families.