Anemia and Chemotherapy

Anemia is a potential side effect of chemotherapy. It is 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 throughout your body. Chemotherapy can damage your body's ability to make RBCs. As a result, your body tissues don't get enough oxygen. This leads to anemia.

Whether anemia happens depend on the type of chemotherapy, length of treatment, and the amount given. Know that anemia can happen and how to manage it can help minimize 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. Check with your healthcare provider immediately if you have any of these symptoms.

You will also be given tests to measure your hemoglobin and hematocrit during your therapy. These numbers are used to watch for anemia.

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. Talk to your healthcare 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 healthcare provider may decide not to wait until the medicines work. He or she may give you a transfusion.

Here are some ways 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 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, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, fluid retention or leg swelling, or frequent urination at night to your doctor.

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.