Who gets myelodysplastic syndrome or MDS?

preleukemia woman“What is that?”  This is the question many patients and family members will ask when they learn they or a loved one has received a diagnosis of myelodysplastic syndrome.

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
  • Smoking
  • Environmental exposures – radiation exposure and chemical exposures to benzene and petroleum
  • Genetic syndromes

Treatment includes:

  • 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.

More reading:

Myelodysplastic Syndromes Foundation

Aplastic Anemia & MDS International Foundation

The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society




The Cancer AnswerLine™ nurses are experienced in oncology care, including helping patients and their families who have questions about cancer. These registered oncology nurses are available by calling 800-865-1125 Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. Your call is always free and confidential.


The University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer is celebrating its 25th anniversary, 1988 to 2013The University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center’s 1,000 doctors, nurses, care givers and researchers are united by one thought: to deliver the highest quality, compassionate care while working to conquer cancer through innovation and collaboration. The center is among the top-ranked national cancer programs, and #1 in Michigan for cancer patient care. Seventeen multidisciplinary clinics offer one-stop access to teams of specialists for personalized treatment plans, part of the ideal patient care experience. Patients also benefit through access to promising new cancer therapies.