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Anemia and cancer are both common health conditions often thought of separately, but should they be? Probably not. A significant number of people with cancer — between 30 and 90 percent — also have anemia.

There are several types of anemia; however, iron-deficiency anemia is most often linked to cancer. Iron-deficiency anemia is caused by a lack of healthy red blood cells in the body. Read on to learn more about the anemia-cancer connection.

What is anemia?

Iron-deficiency anemia is caused by a lack of healthy red blood cells in the body. Your body makes red blood cells in bone marrow, a spongy material inside your body’s largest bones.

Red blood cells are important for fighting infections, clotting blood, and carrying oxygen throughout your body. This can happen when your body doesn’t make enough red blood cells, when you’ve had severe bleeding, or when your body starts to destroy its red blood cells.

When red blood cells are damaged or not numerous enough, they cannot carry oxygen efficiently throughout your body. This leads to weakness and fatigue, and can harm your body if left untreated.

Iron-deficiency anemia is most commonly caused by a poor diet, digestive disorders, menstruation, pregnancy, bleeding disorders, and advanced age. Also, it appears there are several types of cancers closely linked to anemia.

Here’s a rundown on how anemia is linked to these cancers:

Anemia and blood cancer

Blood cancer is one type of cancer commonly linked to anemia. That’s because blood cancer affects how your body produces and uses red blood cells.

Most of the time, blood cancers start in the bone marrow and cause abnormal blood cells to start growing. These abnormal blood cells reduce your body’s abilities to work normally. In some cases they may cause serious bleeding and infections.

types of blood cancer

Blood cancers are grouped into three main types:

  • Leukemia. This is cancer in your blood and bone marrow caused by a rapid production of abnormal white blood cells. These blood cells are not good at fighting infections and reduce the ability of the bone marrow to make red blood cells, which can lead to anemia.
  • Lymphoma. This is a type of cancer in the blood affecting the body’s lymphatic system, the system that removes extra fluid from your body and makes immune cells. Lymphoma leads to the production of abnormal blood cells that harm your immune system.
  • Myeloma. This is a type of cancer affecting infection-fighting cells in your body. Abnormal myeloma cells weaken your body’s immune system, making you more prone to infection.

Anemia and bone cancer

Bone cancer is rare in adults. It begins when abnormal cells begin to grow in the bones into masses, or tumors, called sarcoma.

Experts don’t know exactly what causes most cases of bone cancer. However, some bone cancers appear to be linked to genetics, while others are related to previous exposure to radiation, such as radiation therapy for other, previous cancers.

TYPES of bone cancer

The most common types of bone cancer include:

  • Chondrosarcoma. This cancer occurs in cells that produce cartilage, causing tumors around bones.
  • Ewing’s sarcoma. This cancer involves tumors in the soft tissue and nerves surrounding bone.
  • Osteosarcoma. Rare, but the most common type of bone cancer, this cancer causes bones to become weak and easily broken. It more commonly affects teenagers and young adults.

It appears some bone cancers lead to production of abnormal red blood cells, which can lead to anemia.

Anemia and cervical cancer

Cervical cancer is caused by abnormal cell growth in the cervix, the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina. The sexually transmitted infection human papillomavirus (HPV) is thought to cause most cases of cervical cancer. Abnormal growth of cells in the cervix often causes bleeding and iron deficiency, which leads to anemia.

Anemia and colon cancer

Colon cancer is caused by abnormal growth of cells in the large intestine (colon). These cells often form tumors on or in blood vessels in the colon that carry red blood cells.

Research suggests that these tumors can cause bleeding and a loss of healthy red blood cells, which commonly causes anemia. Most people with colon cancer experience rectal bleeding and bloody stool, as well as weakness and fatigue linked to their anemia.

Anemia and prostate cancer

Prostate cancer is the abnormal growth of cells in the prostate, a small gland men have to produce and transport semen. Men with prostate cancer sometimes experience bleeding from their prostate, which can appear as blood in their semen.

Research from 2004 suggests that men with prostate cancer also experience abnormalities in their bone marrow, which can affect production of red blood cells. The bleeding and blood cell abnormalities can cause anemia.

Anemia symptoms

Anemia can be mild, moderate, or severe. Often, the longer anemia goes untreated, the worse your symptoms will become.

symptoms of anemia

Common symptoms of anemia include:

  • chest pain
  • cold hands and feet (indicating poor circulation of oxygen in the body)
  • dizziness and light-headedness
  • fatigue
  • headache
  • irregular heartbeat
  • pale or yellow skin
  • shortness of breath
  • weakness

Left untreated, anemia can cause serious health problems. Contact your doctor if you’re experience one or more of these symptoms.

Cancer symptoms

Symptoms of cancer vary depending on type. Here’s a rundown of some of the signs of cancers most commonly linked to anemia. Not every person with these cancers will experience all of the signs.

Blood cancer

  • chest pain
  • chills
  • coughing
  • fever
  • frequent infections
  • itchy skin or rashes
  • loss of appetite and nausea
  • night sweats
  • shortness of breath
  • swollen lymph nodes

Bone cancer

  • bone pain
  • fatigue
  • swelling and tenderness near bones
  • weakened bones and bone fractures
  • weight loss

Cervical cancer

  • pelvic pain, especially during intercourse
  • watery, bloody vaginal discharge that might be heavy, with a foul odor
  • vaginal bleeding after sex, between periods, or after menopause

Colon cancer

  • abdominal pain, gas, cramps, and general discomfort
  • change in bowel habits and stool consistency
  • rectal bleeding
  • trouble emptying bowel
  • weakness and fatigue
  • weight loss

Prostate cancer

  • blood in semen
  • bone pain
  • decreased force in urine stream
  • erectile dysfunction
  • pelvic pain
  • trouble urinating

Symptoms of anemia and cancer

Symptoms of anemia and cancer may occur together. It’s important to see your doctor if you notice symptoms of either condition or both conditions together.

Different cancers can cause anemia for different reasons. The main causes include:

  • a loss of healthy red blood cells
  • bleeding tumors
  • damage to bone marrow

To diagnose anemia with cancer, your doctor will begin by running through your medical and family history. They’ll also perform a physical exam and run the appropriate tests that may include:

  • biopsies of suspected cancer tissue to check cells for abnormalities
  • complete blood count (CBC), a blood test that counts the number of red blood cells in a sample of your blood; a low CBC is a sign of anemia
  • HPV test (cervical cancer)
  • imaging tests, such as bone scans, CT scans, MRIs, PETs, ultrasounds, and X-rays to check for tumors
  • other blood tests to check body functions that could be affected by cancers, such as those of your liver and kidneys
  • Pap test (cervical cancer)
  • screenings of the colon and prostate

Treating anemia

If you have iron-deficiency anemia without cancer, treatment may involve:

  • improving your diet to include more iron-rich foods
  • stopping any bleeding (other than menstruation) that could be contributing to your anemia
  • taking iron supplements

Treating cancer

Cancer treatments vary depending on the type of cancer. Some common cancer treatments include:

  • Chemotherapy. Administration of anti-cancer drugs delivered through a vein to kill cancer cells.
  • Radiation therapy. High-powered energy beams like X-rays are used to kill cancer cells. Radiation therapy is often used before surgery to shrink tumors.
  • Surgery. Entire cancerous tumors are removed so that the tumor stops growing and affecting the body. Depending on where the tumor is located, this may or may not be possible.

Consequence of cancer treatment

If you have severe anemia, you may have to delay your cancer treatment or reduce your dose until your anemia is under control. Anemia can cause weakness and also make some cancer treatments less effective.

Your doctor will evaluate your best course of treatment in order to minimize possible complications caused by cancer treatment while you have anemia.

It’s important to treat both anemia and cancer in people with both of these conditions. Anemia can reduce the quality of life of cancer patients and also tends to reduce survival.

What’s more, anemia can reduce cancer patients’ overall ability to recover from their treatment and ultimately beat their cancer. A 2015 study suggests older adult cancer patients lose a significant amount of their abilities to function when they also have anemia.

Anemia and cancer are serious conditions separately, but also when linked together they can cause serious harm. There are several kinds of cancers that can lead to anemia.

It’s important for both of these conditions to be treated aggressively when they happen together for the best possible health outcome.