Anaemia: Symptoms and Treatment

Chemotherapy may cause anaemia, which is a common side effect that is not often spoken about. One study found that 89.5% of people with solid tumours receiving chemotherapy experienced some degree of anaemia. Thankfully, the vast majority of these people suffered only mild to moderate anaemia. 

What is Anaemia?

Anaemia is when your body has not enough red blood cells. This takes place when chemotherapy damages your bone marrow and kidneys. Red blood cells are made in your bone marrow, whilst your kidneys help to communicate with your body when to create more red blood cells. 

Bone marrow is the soft, spongy tissue found inside your larger bones and makes up nearly all the components of your blood. It is responsible for creating billions of red blood cells daily, and their job is to carry oxygen around your body. Along with white blood cells to fight infections and platelets to control bleeding. Bone marrow also stores fat that turns into energy as needed.

Kidneys on the other hand play an even more important role! Without your kidneys, your bone marrow would not know when to create red blood cells. This is because the kidneys create a hormone called erythropoietin. Once made, it acts on red blood cells to protect them against destruction. At the same time it stimulates stem cells of the bone marrow to increase the production of red blood cells.

 

Damage from the bone marrow and kidneys usually does not last and anaemia often improves a few months after chemotherapy ends. 

 

Symptoms to look out For

  • Fatigue
  • Drowsiness
  • Depression
  • Shortness of Breath
  • Rapid Heart Rate 
  • Lightheadedness or Dizziness
  • Poor Concentration
  • Loss of Appetite 
  • Skin that looks paler than usual
  • Headaches
  • Fainting 

If you experience any of these symptoms above, speak to your cancer team. It may not be anaemia but knowing can help you get the right treatment and is relatively easy to diagnose with a complete blood count.

Treatment 

Iron and other supplements

Your doctor may give you a prescription for an iron supplement, folic acid (vitamin B9) or vitamin B12) or you may be told to eat more high iron foods like red meats, enriched grains and cereals.

Blood Transfusions 

The transfusion increases the number of red blood cells in your blood. This means that more oxygen can be carried around your body to your tissues and organs. This will increase your energy levels and reduce breathlessness.

Erythropoietin Stimulating Agents 

A medical professional can administer erythropoietin stimulating agents as a shot under your skin. They’re synthetic versions of the hormone erythropoietin produced by your kidneys. This hormone stimulates the production of red blood cells.

 

Although symptoms do go away after treatment has finished, they can last for a few weeks. Try these simple tips below

  • Resting and only doing activities you can handle.
  • Staying hydrated.
  • Eating a balanced diet with lots of protein and iron-rich foods.
  • Keeping a journal of your symptoms, to help keep your cancer care team updated.
  • Planning activities for when you have the most energy.