Blood Counts and Cancer Treatment

Chemotherapy and radiation are designed to kill cancerous cells. Unfortunately, healthy cells can also be damaged during mesothelioma treatment, and this can lead to a number of health problems. Learn about the types of blood cells and how they may be affected by cancer treatment.

There are three types of blood cells, and each type of cell has a specific purpose and function. White blood cells (leukocytes) are for fighting infection. Red blood cells (erythrocytes) transport oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. Platelets (thrombocytes) are essential to blood clotting. During treatment, your doctor will frequently test your blood and possibly your bone marrow to monitor the levels of each type of blood cell in your body.

When blood cells reach their lowest levels after cancer treatment, this is called the cell count nadir. Each type of cell can reach its nadir at a different time. White blood cells, for example, usually reach their nadir within a week or two of the last chemotherapy treatment. This is the time when the body is most susceptible to infection. Blood counts will naturally begin to rise roughly 3 or 4 weeks after treatment is finished.

White Blood Cells

White blood cells (WBC) are the body’s first line of defense against bacteria, viruses, and infections. There are different types of white blood cells: neutrophils are the most common. When a person’s neutrophil count is low, he or she is said to have neutropenia.

Neutropenia may cause your doctor to pause your treatment for a while or lower the dosage of your medications until your neutrophil count rebounds. As a preventive measure, your doctor may also prescribe antibiotics to help ward off any germs or infections while your immune system is compromised by cancer treatment. There are also some drugs that are designed to treat neutropenia. Neupogen, Neulasta, and Leukine are drugs that stimulate the production of neutrophils in the bone marrow.

Red Blood Cells

Red blood cells (RBC) contain hemoglobin, the substance responsible for delivering oxygen throughout the body. When a person has a low red blood cell count, he or she is said to be anemic. Anemia is a common cancer treatment side effect, and is especially common in patients who have a blood cancer like leukemia. Anemia causes a decrease in the oxygen available to the entire body, and can often lead to a loss of energy or fatigue. In some cases, when a patient is severely anemic, he or she may require a blood transfusion to bolster red blood cell counts and help restore energy.

There are certain medications, like erythropoietin (Aranesp, Procrit, Epogen) that can stimulate red blood cell production. In some cases, patients with anemia are encouraged to eat a more balanced diet and take iron and folic acid supplements.

Platelets

Platelets are the clotting agent in blood, preventing excessive bleeding. Often, cancer patients who have a low platelet count (thrombocytopenia) encounter bruising or bleeding. In most cases, platelet levels rebound after chemotherapy is completed. When platelets don’t come back quickly enough, the patient may need a blood transfusion.

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