Does cancer cause anemia? What to know about anemia and its link to serious health conditions

A woman with anemia experiences fatigue at work

Anemia is a common condition, with more than 3 million cases each year in the United States alone and about a fourth of the population afflicted worldwide.

Because it’s so common, it can be overlooked and seen as relatively harmless, too. But anemia can also be a sign of other serious health issues, including cancer.

What is anemia?

If you have anemia, your body doesn’t have enough red blood cells. Red blood cells support a critical framework within the body, transporting oxygen from the lungs to the body’s tissues.

What are the symptoms of anemia?

The most common symptoms of anemia include…

  • Tiredness
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Headaches
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Pale/yellow skin
  • Brittle nails and hair
  • Abnormal craving for non-food items (aka pica)

When is anemia a sign of a more serious health issue?

While the most common cause of anemia is iron deficiency due to menstrual loss or poor nutrition, the condition can also link to several other serious health issues, such as cancer.

Whether anemia is a sign of a more severe health condition should be determined on an individual basis, because it’s important to consider age, overall health and medical history when determining the root cause.

Regardless of why someone has anemia, a deficiency of healthy red blood cells should never be overlooked, especially if it persists over time.

What serious health issues can cause anemia?

Anemia can be caused by various forms of cancer, including colon cancer, blood and bone marrow cancer and kidney cancer. Chemotherapy can also cause anemia by suppressing bone marrow, thus inhibiting the production of red blood cells.

Anemia of inflammation, also commonly referred to as “anemia of chronic disease,” is another type of anemia that results from inflammation-causing conditions including infections and autoimmune disorders.

Anemia can complicate treatment of other health problems

Someone who has anemia and another serious disease might find that more than one contributing factor is causing the red blood cell deficiency, in turn complicating anemia treatment.

People with certain chronic conditions might experience worsened disease symptoms if they also develop anemia.

Anemia also interferes with chemotherapy treatments in cancer patients, because these patients need to have a certain number of red blood cells in order to receive treatment.

What are some treatment options for anemia?

Hormone treatment and IV iron therapy are common treatment options for people who also have an additional serious health issue. Blood transfusions can also be used, but they’re reserved for more severe cases.

Improving the chronic disease that’s driving the anemia can also help alleviate symptoms.

Anemia is often caused by multiple factors, however, and it’s important to consider all contributing factors to determine the best course of treatment, which may eventually lead to blood transfusions.

Are there any dietary changes that can alleviate symptoms?

Oftentimes, iron-rich foods including red meat, legumes, and dark, leafy green vegetables are recommended to people with anemia. Ensuring a balanced, well-rounded diet with the necessary vitamins and minerals can help bone marrow make new cells.

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