Benign Blood Disorders: Anemia

Anemia is the most common blood disorder. It occurs when you do not have enough red blood cells, which carry oxygen to tissues throughout the body. Anemia can be caused by a variety of conditions, including:

  • inherited diseases such as sickle cell anemia and thalassemia
  • low levels of iron, vitamin B12, and folate
  • autoimmune disorders that interfere with the production of red blood cells

Anemia is a very common problem for cancer patients, and can develop under the following circumstances:

  • Some chemotherapy drugs cause anemia by blocking the production of red blood cells in bone marrow or impairing the kidneys’ ability to produce erythropoietin, a hormone that helps bone marrow make red blood cells.
  • High-dose radiation therapy can cause anemia by damaging bone marrow.
  • Surgery to remove tumors in areas of the body that contain large blood vessels can result in excessive blood loss.
  • Some people have a preexisting condition that can increase their risk of developing anemia during cancer treatment. Tell your doctor if you have any known condition that causes anemia, or if you feel especially weak and tired before you begin chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or surgery.

Treating Anemia

Hematologists at Memorial Sloan Kettering will test your blood for any signs of anemia and make any necessary adjustments to your care plan before you start cancer treatment. During your treatment, our team may perform additional blood tests to monitor for any signs of anemia.

In many cases, anemia can be controlled with blood transfusions to replace red blood cells. In addition, your doctor may recommend eating foods that are rich in iron or folic acid throughout your treatment and recovery, in the hospital and at home.