Understanding bone marrow failure disorders
When a seldom-mentioned disease hits someone outside our family or circle of friends and acquaintances, we rarely take notice. But when the same disease targets a celebrity like Robin Roberts, co-host of ABC's "Good Morning America," it grabs our attention.
In June, Roberts announced on GMA that she had been diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS), a form of cancer, and this past week, Sept. 10, she underwent a bone marrow transplant. Five years ago, Roberts defeated breast cancer.
MDS, which is also known as bone marrow failure disorder, is "a group of diverse bone marrow disorders in which the bone marrow does not produce enough healthy blood cells," according to the MDS Foundation.
About 12,000 new cases, mostly among adults over 65, are diagnosed each year, according to the American Cancer Society. The society also notes that the number of cases appears to be increasing as the population grows older. Researchers believe that long-term exposure to some industrial chemicals or certain inherited conditions may be leading causes of MDS. There is also some indication that smoking raises the risks of a person acquiring MDS.
Like most cancers, a person with MDS exhibits no early symptoms of the disease. But there are warning signs. According to the website WebMD, those warning signs include:
•Fatigue, which is a common symptom.
•Bruises and red marks under the skin.
•Shortness of breath during physical activity.
Of course, these warning signs can also be indicative of some other disease or condition, but your doctor will perform follow up tests to make an accurate diagnosis of MDS. Those tests can include a physical exam, blood sample, bone marrow sample or a genetic analysis of the cells from the bone marrow.
Once a doctor makes a diagnosis of MDS, the particular treatment a patient will receive varies due to the variety in MDS types with the main goal being to increase the number of healthy cells in the body.
Like Roberts, a bone marrow or stem cell replacement procedure may be the appropriate choice for younger patients, depending upon the availability of a matched donor according to the American Cancer Society. In Roberts' case, her sister was the matched donor.
For other patients, chemotherapy, blood transfusions or other drugs may be the preferred option. Participation in a clinical trial could also be possible as researchers continue to seek newer and better ways to treat MDS.
When it comes to treatment, however, the American Cancer Society does sound one cautionary note on its website.
"When stem cell transplant is not an option, MDS is not thought to be curable. In that case, the goal is to relieve symptoms and avoid problems and side effects of treatment," reads a statement on the site.
Research continues today in many cancer centers across the country as researchers explore both the causes and treatment of MDS.
For more information about MDS, visit the websites of the American Cancer Society (www.cancer.org) and the MDS Foundation (www.mds-foundation.org).