Chemotherapy is a standard treatment for many different types of cancer.

Chemicals in chemotherapy drugs stop cancer cells from growing and spreading. These chemicals can also damage healthy cells, especially ones that divide quickly. This includes cells in your skin, digestive tracts, and bone marrow.

Damage to these cells can cause side effects. One common side effect is chemotherapy-induced anemia.

Anemia means you don’t have enough red blood cells to properly carry oxygen around your body. This condition develops when chemotherapy drugs damage the cells in your bone marrow that create red blood cells.

Anemia usually goes away once chemotherapy stops but can lead to potentially serious complications when it develops. In this article, we break down causes of chemotherapy-induced anemia, signs and symptoms, and potential complications.

More than 100 types of medications have been developed to treat cancer, according to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. Different medications disrupt cancer growth in different ways, and all have potential side effects.

The chemicals in chemotherapy drugs mainly target cells that replicate quickly. Along with cancer cells, these drugs can damage healthy cells. A low red blood cell count caused by these medications is called chemotherapy-induced anemia.

The erythroid progenitor cell is particularly vulnerable to chemotherapy, according to 2018 research. These cells are found in your bone marrow and become red blood cells. If many of these cells are damaged, you can develop a low red blood cell count.

A low red blood cell count means your blood has less hemoglobin than average. Hemoglobin is the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen to all your bodily tissues.

It’s estimated that 70 percent of people who receive chemotherapy develop anemia. It’s most common in people with:

At least 50 to 60 percent of people with these cancers require at least one blood transfusion. A transfusion is a procedure where you’re given donated blood through an IV.

Chemotherapy-induced anemia is also common in people with low hemoglobin levels prior to treatment and people receiving platinum-based chemotherapy medications, according to the American Cancer Society. These medications include:

  • cisplatin
  • carboplatin
  • oxaliplatin
  • nedaplatin
  • lobaplatin

According to 2019 research, signs and symptoms of chemotherapy-induced anemia can overlap with cancer symptoms. These symptoms often include:

Other signs and symptoms may include:

Research from 2020 suggests anemia can negatively affect the survival rate of people receiving treatment for cancer. Severe anemia may delay or reduce part of your chemotherapy treatment, which can lead to worsened results.

Treatment for anemia may include:

  • getting blood transfusions
  • taking medications (erythropoietin-stimulating agents)
  • supplementing vitamins and minerals your body needs to create red blood cells

Blood transfusion

A blood transfusion involves receiving blood from a donor through an IV. Donated blood needs to match your blood type or your immune system may attack the foreign blood cells. Transfusions can help quickly reduce your symptoms by increasing the circulation of oxygen to your organs and tissues.

Transfusions are commonly performed when hemoglobin levels drop below 8.0 grams per deciliter (g/dL) of blood.

Erythropoietin-stimulating agents

A medical professional can administer erythropoietin-stimulating agents as a shot under your skin. They’re synthetic versions of the hormone erythropoietin produced by your kidneys. This hormone stimulates the production of red blood cells.

It usually takes 4 to 6 weeks for these drugs to have a significant effect, and about a third of people don’t respond at all. Healthcare professionals usually only recommend them for people receiving palliative treatment to ease symptoms of anemia when cancer isn’t considered curable, according to 2019 research.

Erythropoietin-stimulating agents can help increase your hemoglobin levels and reduce the need for blood transfusions, but they’re associated with serious health complications and an increased risk of death, according to 2009 research.

Iron and other supplements

About 65 percent of your body’s iron is found in hemoglobin, a protein in your blood that carries oxygen to your body’s organs and tissues. Without enough iron, blood cells can’t carry oxygen to cells throughout your body. Low iron levels can also lead to anemia.

Your doctor may give you a prescription for an iron supplement or tell you to eat more high iron foods, like:

  • red meats
  • almonds
  • broccoli
  • enriched grains and cereals
  • beans

Researchers are still investigating the potential benefits of iron supplementation for people receiving erythropoietin-stimulating agents. Research from 2017 suggests that it may help reduce the need for blood transfusions.

Your doctor may also give you a prescription for folic acid (vitamin B9) or vitamin B12. These vitamins are also necessary to produce red blood cells.

Chemotherapy-induced anemia often goes away once treatment ends and your body has time to repair itself. According to the Canadian Cancer Society, low blood cell counts typically begin to recover 2 to 4 weeks after chemotherapy ends.

In the meantime, you can do the following to manage your symptoms:

  • getting plenty of rest and only doing activities you can handle
  • staying hydrated and drinking plenty of water
  • eating a balanced diet with lots of protein and iron-rich foods
  • keeping a journal of your symptoms and noting when they occur
  • keeping your healthcare team updated about how you’re feeling
  • planning activities for when you have the most energy

According to the American Cancer Society, anemia has been found to shorten the lifespan of people with cancer. It may delay cancer treatment, and sometimes the lack of oxygen to your cells can be life threatening.

If your tissues aren’t getting enough oxygen, your heart has to work harder to move blood through your body. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, increased stress on your heart can worsen already present heart problems or lead to conditions such as:

Breathing problems from anemia can make everyday tasks, like walking, difficult and impact your quality of life.

Anemia is a common side effect of chemotherapy. The chemicals in chemotherapy medications that destroy cancer cells can also damage healthy cells in your body. Anemia usually passes once chemotherapy stops.

Your cancer team can help you manage symptoms of anemia through medications, blood transfusions, and prescribing vitamins and minerals. It’s important to communicate with your team about any new symptoms you develop so you can build the best treatment plan possible.