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Anemia and Chemotherapy

Anemia, which is a decreased number of red blood cells that carry oxygen to the body, is a potential side effect of chemotherapy depending on the type of chemotherapy, duration of treatment, and the amount given. Anticipating and managing anemia can help to minimize the symptoms it may cause.

Anemia and chemotherapy

As each person's individual medical profile and diagnosis is different, so is his or her reaction to treatment. Side effects may be severe, mild, or absent. Be sure to discuss with your cancer care team possible side effects of treatment before the treatment begins.

Red blood cells (RBCs) carry oxygen to other cells throughout your body. Chemotherapy can damage your body’s ability to make RBCs, so body tissues do not get enough oxygen, a condition called anemia. A person with anemia may feel very weak, tired, dizzy, faint, short of breath, or feel that his or her heart is beating very fast. Consult your doctor immediately if you experience any of these symptoms.

You will be given tests to measure your hemoglobin and hematocrit during your therapy. These numbers are used to watch for anemia. If you have too few red blood cells, you may need a blood transfusion or medications, such as epoetin or darbepoetin, to raise the number of red blood cells in your body. Talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits in your specific case. These medicines take time to work. If the anemia is severe or you have symptoms, your doctor may decide not to wait until the medications work and proceed with a transfusion.

What can I do if I have anemia?

Consider the following strategies to help manage anemia and 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. Drink plenty of fluids.

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

  • Limit caffeine and alcohol.

  • Ask for help with daily responsibilities.

  • Talk to your doctor regarding ways to conserve your energy and reduce fatigue.

  • Report any changes in energy level, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, fluid retention or leg swelling, or frequent urination at night to your doctor.

Medical Reviewers:

  • Dozier, Tennille, RN, BSN, RDMS
  • LoCicero, Richard, MD