Q: How do I know whether my iron deficiency anemia is a symptom of cancer?
A: Anemia is a common blood disorder affecting more than three million Americans. It develops when the body lacks healthy red blood cells and hemoglobin, the protein that helps distribute oxygen throughout the body.
Iron deficiency anemia (IDA) develops when your body also lacks sufficient iron in its bloodstream.
IDA is not a diagnosis, but rather a symptom of a larger cause or condition. When the body does not receive enough iron, your cells cannot produce hemoglobin.
In many cases, IDA can serve as a red flag for health-care providers to search for cancer. Colon, uterine and bladder cancers, for example, can cause or increase blood loss. Anemia may also be a sign of a blood-related cancer such as leukemia or lymphoma.
Causes of IDA
Because people with certain cancers are at risk of developing iron deficiency, it is important to rule out causes of IDA other than cancer:
While each instance is different, IDA has several recognizable symptoms. You may feel weak or fatigued, making everyday activities seem challenging. You may experience intermittent headaches or dizziness, and your hands or feet may often feel cold, even in moderate temperatures. You may also experience dyspnea—a sudden or unexplained shortness of breath.
In rare cases, IDA can cause pica, a disorder characterized by persistent cravings of non-food substances, such as paper, ice, or paint. Though uncommon, pica is often a dangerous side effect of IDA and should be treated immediately.
A physician who suspects IDA might recommend additional screenings to determine whether your IDA is linked to undiagnosed cancer.
By identifying the cause of your IDA early, you and your physician can work to address it and improve your quality of life. Talk to your physician to assess your risk factors for IDA.