Is anemia a sign of cancer? Much scientific research shows that anemia and cancer have a connection to each other. Cancer is a leading cause of anemia in most people.
Anemia occurs when there is a lack of enough red blood cells to carry enough oxygen throughout your body. The anemia-related symptoms are weakness and tiredness.
Cancer occurs when body cells mutate and multiply, affecting different body parts like the lungs, brain, breast, stomach, and more. Cancer symptoms change depending on the type of cancer.
The initial symptoms of anemia prove to be a risk factor for cancer and cancer treatments.
Let’s look at how anemia and cancer get linked together with risk factors.
1. Is Anemia a Sign of Cancer? The Connection between Anemia and Cancer
Iron deficiency anemia is the most commonly linked to cancer. When the red blood cell count gets lowered, it results in iron deficiency anemia. Also, the hemoglobin level becomes lower than the actual level.
Several cancers result in anemia. The most common ones linked with low hemoglobin levels include blood cancers like Leukemia and Lymphoma. They disturb the process of making more red blood cells in the bone marrow.
Cancer is associated with a lot of blood loss, like cervical cancer, colon cancer, or colorectal cancer. Also, prostate cancer and breast cancer cells travel to the bone marrow and may affect the blood cells.
A person with kidney cancer, chronic kidney disease, or inflammatory diseases is also likely to suffer anemia. It is called chronic disease anemia.
2. Causes of Anemia
Iron deficiency is the prime reason that causes anemia in people. Now, what is this iron deficiency anemia? It is the lack of mineral iron required for healthy red blood cells. The red blood cells have iron-rich protein hemoglobin that contains iron and carries oxygen in the blood.
The body produces healthy red blood cells in the bone marrow, soft, spongy tissue with many blood vessels. When there is a low red blood cell count, the hemoglobin level lowers and fails to carry oxygen in the body. One can develop anemia when:
- The body fails to produce blood cells
- The body loses blood cells through bleeding
- The body destroys its blood cells
Statistical data analysis by WHO shows the prevalence of anemia in women and children in the African region in 2019 was about 60%.
2.1. Chemotherapy-Induced Anemia
Do cancer treatments cause anemia? It is a yes. Chemotherapy treatment is a common cause of anemia in cancer patients. It is a cancer treatment that attacks cancer-causing cells along with other rapidly dividing cells such as platelets, red blood cells, and cells in the bone marrow that replace white blood cells.
Also, certain chemotherapy drugs like platinum-based chemotherapy develop anemia in cancer patients.
According to a study by Dovepress in 2016, 90% of people undergoing chemotherapy treatments for solid tumors were diagnosed with anemia.
3. Symptoms of Anemia
Anemia symptoms can be mild, moderate, or even sometimes severe. One might not notice symptoms initially as they start slowly. If one fails to treat anemia in the early stages, the worse the symptoms will be. The main symptoms of anemia include:
- Shortness of breath
- Trouble breathing
- Chest pain
- Pale skin, nail beds, gums, and lips
- Tiredness and weakness
- Swelled hands and feet
- Increased heartbeat
4. Symptoms of Cancer
What are the symptoms of cancer? Symptoms of cancer depend on the stage of cancer. The higher the cancer stage, the higher the symptoms. Below listed are the types of cancer and their symptoms.
4.1. Blood Cancer
The symptoms of blood cancer are chest pain, shortness of breath or trouble breathing, cough, fever, nausea, loss of appetite, and infections.
4.2. Bone Cancer
The symptoms of bone cancer are bone pain, fatigue, fever, weakened bones, bone fractures, and swelling near bones.
4.3. Cervical Cancer
The symptoms of cervical cancer are pelvic pain, abnormal vaginal discharge, and vaginal bleeding after menopause or during periods.
4.4. Colon Cancer
The symptoms of colon cancer are abdominal pain, cramps, gas, blood stools, irritable bowel movements, rectal bleeding, fatigue, weight loss, and vomiting.
4.5. Prostate Cancer
The symptoms of prostate cancer are sudden urination, increased urination at night, blood in urine, pain during urination, back pain, hip pain, pelvis pain, urine starting difficulty, and inability to empty urine from the bladder completely.
5. Cancer Treatment Methods
Cancer treatments depend on the type of cancer. Some of the cancer treatment methods are:
This process involves the injection of anti-cancer drugs into the body through veins that kill cancer cells.
5.2. Radiation Therapy
This process involves high-power electromagnetic radiation like X-rays to kill cancer cells. Radiation therapy is used before surgery to shrink tumors.
This process involves the removal of cancer tumors to stop them from growing and affecting the body.
Additionally, there are advanced cancer treatments that one can look for in the future.
6. Types of Cancer Associated with Anemia
Is anemia a sign of cancer? What are the types of cancer associated with anemia?
6.1. Anemia and Colon Cancer
Colon Cancer occurs in the colon or large intestine due to abnormal growth of cells. It results in the formation of tumors in the blood vessels.
Iron deficiency anemia may be the primary cause of this cancer. People with cancer suffer from weakness and fatigue due to anemia resulting from bloody stools. They experience a lot of blood loss and lower hemoglobin levels.
6.2. Anemia and Blood Cancer
Blood cancer is a common cancer that can cause anemia. It severely affects red blood cells, and the hemoglobin levels come down. It usually occurs in the bone marrow, namely leukemia, lymphoma, and myeloma, and affects red blood cell growth.
People here suffer bleeding, and the body loses its ability to function normally, resulting in anemia symptoms like fatigue and weight loss.
6.3. Anemia and Cervical Cancer
Cervical cancer occurs in the cervix, the lower part of the uterus connecting to the vagina. It is a malignant tumor due to abnormal cell growth in the cervix. Human Papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection, plays a vital role in most cases of cervical cancer.
People with cancer have an increased risk of bleeding and iron deficiency, resulting in anemia. The prevention method for this cancer is through PAP smearing or the HPV vaccine.
6.4. Anemia and Bone Cancer
Bone cancer is the abnormal growth of unusual cells in a bone. It may occur in any bone but most commonly affects the pelvis or the long bones in the legs and arms. This cell growth in the bones results in a tumor called sarcoma.
The primary cause of this cancer could be some abnormal healing of a bone injury, inherited disorders, or radiation exposure. The other reasons may be genetic heredity or the effects of other cancer that spreads in the bone.
The person suffers from aches due to swelling around the bone and making him dull, resulting in anemia.
6.5. Anemia and Prostate Cancer
Prostate cancer occurs in the prostate gland. It is a small gland in males that secretes a seminal fluid called semen. It nourishes and transports sperm.
People with cancer suffer difficulty in urination, and some experience bleeding in the prostate, which appears as blood in the semen.
A recent study suggests that bones are the common site for prostate cancer in men, which reduces the production of red blood cells.
7. Diagnosis of Anemia
Is anemia a sign of cancer? How to diagnose anemia? Doctors conduct a blood test called a complete blood count (CBC) to diagnose anemia. This test gives the number of red blood cells or hemoglobin levels.
The red block count in men is 4.32 to 5.72 trillion cells/L, and the count in women – is 3.90 to 5.03 trillion cells/L.
Hemoglobin levels in men must be higher than 13.5 grams/100 ml and 12.5 grams/100 ml in women. Hematocrit levels should be 42% to 54% in men and 38% to 46% in women.
7.1. Additional Lab Blood Tests for Anemia Diagnosis
There are further tests that doctors perform for anemia diagnosis.
Mean Corpuscular Volume (MCV) – This test gives data on the size of red blood cells. Small cell size is an indication of iron deficiency anemia. Large cell size indicates vitamin B12 deficiency and folate levels.
Red Cell Distribution Width (RDW) – This test measures the equality in size and shape of red blood cells. Lower RDW indicates that red blood cells are of the same size. Higher RDW is a sign of anemia and other nutritional deficiencies.
Mean Corpuscular Hemoglobin Concentration (MCHC) – This test gives the average hemoglobin concentration in red blood cells. A proper MCHC value lies between 320 to 360 grams per liter (g/L). A higher or lower than this indicated value is an indication of anemia.
Fecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT) – This test checks the stool samples or feces for occult blood. Occult blood is the check for the microscopic blood in the feces. Hence, it is unnoticeable to the naked eye.
8. Treatment for Anemia
How to treat anemia? Managing anemia is a crucial part of one’s medical care and treatment. Treating anemia depends on the underlying diagnosis, and it includes several things.
8.1. Consume Iron-Rich Foods
In iron deficiency anemia, one can consume a diet consisting of more iron-rich foods. Focusing on iron-rich foods like dark green leafy vegetables, fish, meat, and sweet potatoes helps to bring the person’s hemoglobin level up slowly to the optimum and compensates well for the blood loss.
8.2. Iron Pills
Doctors prescribe taking iron pills or iron supplements to treat iron deficiency. However, this needs to be partly taken under the advice of a physician or a healthcare provider. Also, they prescribe supplements for folic acid or vitamin B12 deficiency.
8.3. Blood Transfusion
Blood transfusion is one of the best ways to treat cancer-related anemia. Red blood cell transfusion raises the hemoglobin level rapidly so that your vital organs get enough oxygen. It is also helpful to treat sudden or severe anemia.
8.4. Iron Therapy
Iron therapy is also the best technique to infuse iron through veins if the iron levels are low. Doctors give this therapy to patients who have anemia with colon cancer.
Medications are drugs that stimulate red blood cell production in the bone marrow.
9. Cancer Screening
There is an effective way to detect the presence of cancer before it spreads in the body. It is called cancer screening. Cancer screening is a fundamental part of healthcare and it has no symptoms in people.
9.1. Significance of Cancer Screening
The earlier the detection of cancer, the more the chances of an individual’s survival. It also helps to lessen the treatment cost and is more effective in therapy. Additionally, one can get rid of severe and widespread health issues.
9.2. Cancer Screening Tests
There exist some tests to identify the presence of cancer before the disease manifests itself in the form of symptoms. These are called cancer screening tests.
9.2.1. HPV/Pap/Pelvic Exam
The HPV/Pap/Pelvic exam test is a screening test for cervical cancer. They detect abnormal cell growth in the cervix that has the potential to become cancerous.
A Pap smear or pap test also checks for HPV infection which can increase the risk of cervical cancer. The pelvic exam includes taking samples of HPV and is usually performed in conjunction with a pap test.
Doctors recommend this test beginning age of 21 years.
9.2.2. Colon Screening Test
This is a screening test for colorectal cancer. Some screening tests include stool tests, sigmoidoscopy, and colonoscopy.
Doctors recommend this test for adults over the age of 45. If the person is older than 75, he must talk to the doctor to opt for the correct test and take the test on an individual basis.
9.2.3. Mammogram Screening Test
This is a screening test for breast cancer. A mammogram is taking an X-ray of the breast.
Doctors recommend this test above age 40. People above the age of 50 can take mammograms every two years.
10. Final Note
Coping with anemia could be slightly tricky, especially with fatigue and weakness. It is very annoying and keeps you dull and tired throughout the day. If left untreated for a long time, it may result in depression and further complications.
Following simple measures like having a balanced diet, regular exercise, and keeping yourself hydrated will help deal with anemia and cancer.
Also, it is fundamental to take regular health check-ups and ensure the RBC count is within the range.
11. Frequently Asked Questions
11.1. What kind of cancer commonly causes anemia?
Blood cancer is a common cancer that can cause anemia. This cancer affects red blood cells and the hemoglobin levels come down.
11.2. Can you have anemia and no cancer?
Yes, anemia happens due to problems in the bone marrow or kidney. Any damage to the kidney or bone marrow can cause anemia.
11.3. Can anemia be serious?
Yes. As known from this article, anemia can be a symptom of cancer. However, even if cancer is not the case, anemia can affect the lungs, heart, stomach, brain, and more.