Myelodysplastic syndrome is a group of conditions that affect a person’s blood cells. MDS is more often seen in men than women. According to the National Marrow Donor Program, MDS affects about 10,000 to 15,000 people each year in the United States with over 80% in patients above the age of 60. A person with MDS either does make enough blood cells or forms cells abnormally which causes the cells to function abnormally. Normally, the bone marrow ( the spongy tissue found in the center of long bones), contains cells called blast cells which are responsible for the production of red and white blood cells as well as platelets. These are all needed for the body to function properly. It is easy to understand how health problems can arise when these cells are not functioning properly.
Why are these different types of blood cells so necessary? Briefly, here is why we need these for adequate health:
– Red blood cells are necessary for carrying oxygen throughout the body. Extreme fatigue, shortness of breath and paleness can occur with inadequate red cells.
– Platelets are needed for blood clotting. Excessive bleeding and bruising is often seen when the body’s ability to clot is compromised.
– White blood cells are necessary for fighting infections. The immune system is compromised when the white blood cell count is too low.
Causes of MDS
The cause of primary myelodysplastic syndrome, or de novo myelodysplastic syndrome, is not known. Patients diagnosed with secondary MDS have a known cause for their condition. According to the Neutropenia Support Association, persons taking chemotherapy or radiation therapy treatments are at risk for developing MDS. Other risk factors can include your age (it is seen more often in the elderly), and exposure to certain chemicals. Smoking can also increase the risk for MDS, and according to the American Cancer Society there may also be some genetic predisposition to the syndrome.
What are the symptoms of MDS?
Patients with myelodysplastic syndrome may feel fine initially while it’s in its early stage. It is often not discovered until the patient sees the doctor for routine lab work. If the disease is caused from low red blood cell count the patient will notice that they are very tired. This fatigue can be accompanied by shortness of breath and weight loss. Because they are anemic, their skin may be quite pale. If the white blood cells are deficient, the patient may report being prone to frequent infections. If the platelets are too low, the patient will likely have problems with nosebleeds, gums bleeding, and excessive bleeding and bruising, even with minor scrapes.
How is MDS diagnosed?
Myelodysplastic syndrome is often discovered by your family doctor or primary care physician on routine examination. The results of your routine complete blood count (CBC) may cause suspicion if the numbers are low. If your doctor suspects you have MDS he will refer you to a hematologist, a physician who specializes in blood disorders. MDS is diagnosed through blood tests initially but additional tests such as a bone marrow biopsy may also done. There are several different types of MDS. Your doctor will tell you specifically which type you have.
How is MDS treated?
Although patients can be given treatments to help control their symptoms, myelodysplastic syndrome has no known cure. You may require blood transfusions if your blood counts are very low. Certain medications can also be given to help your body produce more cells, or to help the existing cells to mature. Treatment of advanced cases could include chemotherapy. According to the Mayo Clinic, MDS can also be treated with a bone marrow transplant and has been successful in some cases.
How will MDS affect your life?
There is no cure for myelodysplastic syndrome at this time. That in itself is an unsettling fact. Persons with mild forms of MDS who are experiencing few symptoms may have stable symptoms that don’t really affect their lifestyle to any great extent. Additionally, as stated by the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, a younger person with this disease may possibly do well after having a successful stem cell transplant.
Other more serious levels of myelodysplastic syndrome can progress into leukemia, a bone marrow cancer that will eventually affect quality and length of life. Persons with low white blood counts are prone to infection and will have to be cautious about being around persons who are ill with contagious diseases. Those with extremely low platelet counts will need to be careful to avoid injuries as they are prone to abnormal amounts of bleeding. Those with limited red blood cells usually tire very easily and will need to learn to pace their activities and get more rest.
National Marrow Donor Program:”Myelodysplastic Syndromes (MDS)”
Neutropenia Support Association:”Myelodysplastic Syndromes”
Mayo Clinic: “Myelodysplastic syndromes”
Leukemia and Lymphoma Society: “Myelodysplastic syndromes facts and statistics”