Breast Cancer and Thrombocytopenia: What You Need to Know

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The platelets in your blood are what help clots form when a blood vessel breaks. Most people have about 150,000 to 450,000 platelets in their bodies, and more are constantly being produced in the bone marrow to replace old ones after their short 10-day lifespan. Low levels of these platelets—called thrombocytopenia—means bruises and bleeding can occur more easily than they should. Bleeding can also be more difficult to stop if you have thrombocytopenia.

Thrombocytopenia can be the result of several diseases like immune system disorders and leukemia. It can also be caused by cancer treatments, like chemotherapy (i.e. doxorubicin), certain hormonal therapies (i.e. toremifene), and targeted therapies (i.e. T-DM1, ado-trastuzumab emtansine, or lapatinib).

In most cases, thrombocytopenia is largely harmless as long as you and your doctor are aware of it and you’re properly taking care of any injuries you sustain. Use a clean cloth to press firmly where you are bleeding and hold the pressure until the bleeding stops. Try ice packs to help bruises heal.

In other cases, however, platelet counts can be low enough to cause serious and potentially life-threatening internal bleeding. For serious bleeding problems such as coughing up or vomiting blood, bleeding from your nose or mouth, or finding blood in your stool or urine, contact a medical professional immediately.

If you believe you have thrombocytopenia due to your breast cancer treatment, alert your doctor to the problem. A simple blood test or physical exam will determine whether you have thrombocytopenia. Then, your doctor may be able to modify your cancer treatment plan if it poses a concern. Even if that’s not a possibility, it’s still important for your health care team to know about this potential problem. They may have other suggestions to help you keep your symptoms at bay, such as avoiding alcohol and certain medications like aspirin or ibuprofen that exacerbate the situation by decreasing the ability of platelets to clump together to stop bleeding.

Your health care provider will also be able to tell you how long you should wait for the bleeding to stop before seeking medical attention. Ask your doctor about your risk of bleeding before starting a complementary therapy that involves putting extra pressure on certain parts of the body, such as chiropractic care, acupuncture, or massage.

If you are experiencing treatment-related thrombocytopenia and there is nothing you can change about your treatment plan or daily habits to stop it, try simply being extra careful about injuring your body to help avoid unnecessary cuts, scrapes, and bruises. You can limit your use of sharp objects, wear shoes indoors, use lotion on areas of your body that are prone to drying and cracking, and even brush your teeth more gently to prevent bleeding.

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Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?