PERTH AMBOY – A few weeks ago, “Good Morning America” co-anchor Robin Roberts publicly announced that five years after beating breast cancer, she is facing another serious health battle. Roberts has been diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome, or MDS, a disease that affects the bone marrow. The news has sparked public interest, especially among cancer patients and survivors, who want to understand more about the condition and whether or not they may be at risk.
Gregory Shypula, M.D., director of Hematology and Oncology at Raritan Bay Medical Center and asst. professor at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, explains that MDS begins with one abnormal cell that multiplies and spreads through the bone marrow, thus making it a type of malignancy. The disease can affect different groups of blood cells (white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets), which is why there are different forms of the disease. Some cases are mild and more easily treated, while others are aggressive and can lead to acute leukemia.
According to the National Cancer Institute, slightly more than 10,000 Americans are diagnosed with MDS each year. While the condition is relatively uncommon compared to other types of cancer, it is no longer considered rare. “The disease is diagnosed more frequently than in the past,” asserts Dr. Shypula.
The cause of MDS is usually unknown, though research links the disease to certain risk factors, including exposure to some chemicals, radiation and chemotherapy. The disease is also more common in men and 80 percent of cases occur in individuals over age 60.
Understandably, the connection to cancer therapy may be concerning to the more than 2.8 million cancer survivors as well as those undergoing cancer treatment. However, while Dr. Shypula acknowledges that MDS is a potential long-term complication, he emphasizes that the vast majority of chemotherapy patients will never contract the disease. “Their chances of developing myelodysplastic syndrome are probably less than 1 percent, and an even smaller percentage of those cases will progress to leukemia,” he says.
Treatment for MDS may include supportive care to manage symptoms and control the disease, such as blood transfusions or drug therapies. The only cure is a stem cell transplant preceded by chemotherapy, which essentially destroys the abnormal stem cells and then replaces them with healthy ones – usually from a donor.
Most people don’t have symptoms in early stages of MDS, though fatigue, shortness of breath or easy bleeding may be signs. The syndrome is usually detected through a routine blood test and confirmed with a bone marrow biopsy.
For more information about MDS, talk to your doctor or call 1-800-DOCTORS for referral to a Raritan Bay Medical Center physician.
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