Myelodysplastic syndrome, or MDS as it is commonly referred to, is actually a group of conditions that affect the blood-forming cells in the bone marrow. It is sometimes called the “bone marrow failure disorder” or preleukemia. About 30% of patients with MDS will develop a form of leukemia known as acute myeloid leukemia, or AML.
We don’t often hear about this disease in the media, but in the last year, Robin Roberts, Good Morning America correspondent, was diagnosed with MDS following treatment for breast cancer. She underwent a stem cell transplant and is reported to be doing well. As is so often the case, this spotlight on a well-known figure produced a number of good media stories to explain MDS.
MDS can be classified as primary MDS, or as secondary MDS.
- Primary or de novo means we don’t know what caused the MDS. There are no known risk factors or exposures to chemicals. These are often easily treated.
- Secondary MDS is caused by chemicals and radiation, for example patients who have received chemotherapy treatment for a previous cancer may be at risk, though the risk is slight.
- There are numerous subtypes of MDS within these two classifications.
What causes MDS?
Bone marrow is found inside the bone, such as the pelvis, spine, ribs and skull. The bone marrow is responsible for producing white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets. These cells fight infection, carry oxygen and help the blood to clot. When bone marrow fails to manufacture the right amount of blood cells, symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath, fever, infection, bruising, bleeding of the gums and nosebleeds can occur, leading to a diagnosis of MDS.
There are approximately 12,000 people diagnosed with MDS each year. The vast majority are over the age of 60. Risk factors include:
- Prior chemotherapy
- Age (over the age of 60)
- Gender – more common in men
- Environmental exposures – radiation exposure and chemical exposures to benzene and petroleum
- Genetic syndromes
- Supportive care – blood transfusions, agents that stimulate blood cell growth and antibiotics
- Drug therapy
- Stem cell transplant
- Clinical trials
If you or anyone you know has questions about MDS, the nurses at the Cancer AnswerLine™ are here to help. Our service is free and confidential. Our phone number is 1-800-865-1125 or you can email us.
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