Cancer-Related Anemia: Care Instructions

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What is anemia?

Anemia is a low level of red blood cells. Red blood cells carry oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body. Cancer or cancer treatment can cause anemia. When you don't have enough red blood cells, your body tissues are getting less oxygen. This can make you feel weak and tired.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

What do you need to know about getting red blood cells?

Your doctor may have prescribed a transfusion of packed red blood cells. These are red blood cells that have been taken from blood donated by someone else. Getting extra red blood cells can help your blood carry more oxygen to the tissues of your body. This can help you feel stronger.

Your health care team will make sure that the packed red blood cells, also called PRBCs, are the right match for your blood type.

What do you need to know about epoetin and darbepoetin?

Your doctor may have prescribed epoetin or darbepoetin because these medicines may help your body make red blood cells. It usually takes several weeks before the medicine starts to work.

The medicine is given as an injection under the skin or into a vein (I.V.). If you miss a dose, take it as soon as you can, unless it is almost time for your next dose. If it is almost time for your next dose, then skip the missed dose and get back on your regular schedule.

Do not take two doses of the medicine at once. Do not freeze the medicine. Store it in the refrigerator. Do not shake the bottle before you prepare the shot.

What do you need to know about iron?

Your body needs iron to make red blood cells. Epoetin and darbepoetin will not work as well if you do not get enough iron. For this reason, you may have iron that is given into a vein (I.V.). Or your doctor may tell you to take iron pills as well as certain vitamins that help the iron work better. Take these exactly as directed. Do not take more iron than your doctor tells you to. Too much iron can cause serious health problems.

You will have regular blood tests to make sure that your blood counts are getting better.

Iron pills and I.V. iron may cause belly pain, constipation, diarrhea, dizziness, fever, nausea, or vomiting. Let your doctor know if you have any of these symptoms.

Iron can change the color of your bowel movements to black or dark gray. This is harmless, but let your doctor know if you see this color change. Internal bleeding can also cause dark stools, so your doctor may want to test the stool to be sure that there is no blood in it.

When should you call for help?

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You passed out (lost consciousness).

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have a fever or chills. Or you may be sweating.
  • You have abnormal bleeding.
  • You think you have an infection.
  • You have new or worse pain.
  • You have new symptoms, such as a cough, belly pain, vomiting, diarrhea, or a rash.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • You are much more tired than usual.
  • You have swollen glands in your armpits, groin, or neck.
  • You do not get better as expected.

Where can you learn more?

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The Health Encyclopedia contains general health information. Not all treatments or services described are covered benefits for Kaiser Permanente members or offered as services by Kaiser Permanente. For a list of covered benefits, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage or Summary Plan Description. For recommended treatments, please consult with your health care provider.