Thrombocytopenia isn’t a type of cancer, but it is a complication of certain cancers and a side effect of cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
Thrombocytopenia is the medical term for a low platelet count. Platelets are the cells in your blood that help blood clot. Without enough platelets, it’s difficult for your body to stop cuts or internal injuries from bleeding.
Although thrombocytopenia isn’t a type of cancer, many people with cancer develop thrombocytopenia. It’s a common side effect of chemotherapy and a complication of some cancers, including blood cancers like leukemia.
Keep reading to learn about the relationship between cancer and thrombocytopenia, along with symptoms, causes, and treatment.
Thrombocytopenia isn’t a type of cancer. However, it’s often linked to cancer. This happens because many types of cancer can lead to thrombocytopenia as a complication. Also, thrombocytopenia is a side effect of some cancer treatments.
Causes of thrombocytopenia linked to cancer include:
- Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy can damage your bone marrow. This kills cancer cells, but it can also destroy your healthy platelets. This sometimes leads to thrombocytopenia.
- Radiation therapy. It’s more common for chemotherapy to cause thrombocytopenia, but large doses of radiation therapy can also lead to low platelet levels.
- Blood cancers. Cancers that impact your blood cells, such as leukemia and lymphoma, cause abnormal cells to overgrow and crowd out your healthy blood cells, including platelets. This can lead to thrombocytopenia.
- Bone cancer. Cancer in bone marrow can harm your body’s ability to make healthy blood cells. This includes platelets and means you can develop thrombocytopenia.
- Spleen cancer. One of the functions of your spleen is to store extra platelets. Cancer can enlarge your spleen, causing it to hold on to an excessive amount of platelets. This can leave you with too few platelets in your blood.
Many causes of thrombocytopenia are not linked to cancer. So, although the condition is common among people with cancer, it’s not a sign of cancer on its own.
Thrombocytopenia can also be a side effect of medications, a symptom of an autoimmune disorder, your body’s response to an infection, the result of heavy drinking, and more.
You might not know you have thrombocytopenia at first. Mild thrombocytopenia doesn’t always cause symptoms. Often, it’s discovered during routine bloodwork, such as complete blood count (CBC).
When symptoms appear, it can signify your platelet count is dangerously low. Symptoms of thrombocytopenia include:
- bleeding gums
- frequent nosebleeds
- easy bruising
- difficulty getting even small cuts to stop bleeding
- blood in urine
- blood in stool
- blood in any other body fluid
- heavy menstrual periods
- spotting in between menstrual periods
- small red or purple spots on the skin called petechiae
Tell your doctor if you have any of these symptoms. Without treatment, severe thrombocytopenia can make it difficult to stop internal and external bleeding. This can lead to a serious or even fatal medical emergency.
Mild thrombocytopenia often resolves on its own and doesn’t require treatment. However, your doctor might recommend treatment if you have symptoms or if your platelet count is very low.
The exact treatment will depend on the cause of your thrombocytopenia and other medical treatments you’re receiving. For example, your doctor might lower your dose if your thrombocytopenia is caused by chemotherapy.
In other cases, you might receive a platelet transfusion. A platelet transfusion is given in the same way as a standard blood transfusion. It replenishes the platelets in your body. However, the effects are temporary, and you might need several throughout your treatment.
Lifestyle steps to take at home
Your doctor might also recommend steps to help avoid bleeding when your platelet count is low. For instance, it’s typically a good idea to:
- avoid alcohol
- use caution with any over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications
- avoid contact sports and other activities with the potential for injury
- use caution around knives, scissors, and other sharp objects
- use an extra soft toothbrush
- consider using a Waterpik instead of floss, especially if your gums bleed
- use a nail file instead of nail clippers
- avoid walking around barefoot, outdoors and indoors
Thrombocytopenia isn’t a type of cancer but is linked to cancer. It’s a common side effect of chemotherapy and can sometimes also be caused by radiation therapy.
Also, several types of cancer, including leukemia, lymphoma, and bone cancer, can lead to thrombocytopenia as a complication. Many causes of thrombocytopenia aren’t linked to cancer.
No matter the cause of thrombocytopenia, it can be dangerous. Severe thrombocytopenia can put you at risk of fatal bleeding. Treatments such as reducing your dose of chemotherapy and platelet transfusions can help reduce your risk.