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Anemia and Chemotherapy

Anemia is a potential side effect of chemotherapy (chemo). It's a condition that involves a decrease in the number of red blood cells (RBCs) in your body. These are the cells that carry oxygen to other cells all over your body. Chemotherapy can damage your body's ability to make and release RBCs from the bone marrow. As a result, your body tissues don't get enough oxygen. This leads to anemia.

Whether anemia occurs depends on the type of chemo, length of treatment, and the amount given. Knowing that anemia can happen and how to manage it can help reduce the symptoms it may cause.

How will I know if I have anemia?

If you have anemia, you may feel very weak, tired, dizzy, faint, short of breath, or feel that your heart is beating very fast. You may have pale skin or chest pain. Check with your healthcare provider if you have any of these symptoms.

You will also be given a routine blood test to measure your hemoglobin and hematocrit during your therapy. These test results are used to keep track if you have anemia and if the treatment is effective.

What can I do if I have anemia?

If you have too few red blood cells, you may need a blood transfusion to raise the number of RBCs in your body. Or your healthcare provider may give you medicines, such as epoetin or darbepoetin. These medicines help your body make more red blood cells. Talk with your provider about the risks and benefits of the treatment in your specific case. Medicines take time to work. If the anemia is severe or you have symptoms, your provider may decide not to wait until the medicines work. They may give you a blood transfusion.

Here are some ways to help manage anemia and severe tiredness (fatigue):

  • Take short naps or breaks. Make sure that you get enough sleep.

  • Limit your activities to those that are most important.

  • Try easier or shorter versions of activities you enjoy.

  • Take short walks or do light exercise, if possible.

  • Consider activities, such as meditation, prayer, yoga, guided imagery, or visualization.

  • Eat as well as you can. Eat foods that include protein and iron. Drink plenty of fluids.

  • Join a support group. Your healthcare provider can help you find a support group in your area.

  • Limit caffeine and alcohol.

  • Ask for help with daily responsibilities.

  • Talk with your healthcare provider about ways to conserve your energy and reduce fatigue.

  • Report any changes in energy level, weakness, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, fluid retention, or leg swelling to your provider.

Remember, each person's medical history and diagnosis is different. So each person reacts to treatment differently. Side effects may be severe, mild, or absent. Talk with your cancer care team about the possible side effects before you start treatment.

Online Medical Reviewer: Jessica Gotwals RN BSN MPH
Online Medical Reviewer: Sabrina Felson MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Todd Gersten MD
Date Last Reviewed: 1/1/2023
© 2000-2024 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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