Low blood cell counts can be a serious complication during cancer treatment. Know why your doctor closely tracks your blood cell counts.
Your doctor may monitor your blood cell counts carefully during your cancer treatment. There’s a good reason you’re having your blood drawn so often — low blood cell counts put you at risk of serious complications.
What’s measured in a blood cell count?
If you’re undergoing certain cancer treatments that could cause low blood cell counts, your doctor will likely monitor your blood cell counts regularly using a test called a complete blood count (CBC). Low blood cell counts are detected by examining a blood sample taken from a vein in your arm.
When checking your blood cell count, your doctor is looking at the numbers and types of the following:
a. White blood cells: These cells help your body fight infection. A low white blood cell count (leukopenia) leaves your body more open to infection. And if an infection does develop, your body may be unable to fight it off.
b. Red blood cells: Red blood cells carry oxygen throughout your body. Your red blood cells’ ability to carry oxygen is measured by the amount of hemoglobin in your blood. If your level of hemoglobin is low, you’re anemic and your body works much harder to supply oxygen to your tissues. This can make you feel fatigued and short of breath.
c. Platelets: Platelets help your blood to clot. A low platelet count (thrombocytopenia) means your body can’t stop itself from bleeding.
What causes low blood cell counts?
Cancer-related causes of low blood cell counts include:
a. Chemotherapy: Certain chemotherapy drugs can damage your bone marrow — the spongy material found in your bones. Your bone marrow makes blood cells, which grow rapidly, making them very sensitive to the effects of chemotherapy. Chemotherapy kills many of the cells in your bone marrow, but the cells recover with time. Your doctor can tell you whether your specific chemotherapy treatment and dose will put you at risk of low blood cell counts.
b. Radiation therapy: If you receive radiation therapy to large areas of your body and especially to the large bones that contain the most bone marrow, such as your pelvis, legs, and torso, you might experience low levels of red and white blood cells.
c. Cancers of the blood and bone marrow: Blood and bone marrow cancers, such as leukemia, grow in the bone marrow and don’t allow normal blood cells to develop.
d. Cancers that spread (metastasize): Cancer cells that break off from a tumor can spread to other parts of your body, including your bone marrow. The cancerous cells can displace other cells in your bone marrow, making it difficult for your bone marrow to produce the blood cells your body needs. This is an unusual cause of low blood cell counts.
Source: Mayo Clinic