Myelodysplastic Syndrome Overview

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Treating Myelodysplastic Syndrome TOPICS

Chemotherapy for myelodysplastic syndrome

Chemotherapy (chemo) is the use of drugs, taken by mouth or put into a vein, to treat cancer. The drugs enter the bloodstream and reach most places in the body.

Conventional chemo

Cells that are dividing are most affected by conventional chemo drugs. This includes cancer cells (such as myelodysplastic syndrome cells) but also some normal cells.

Myelodysplastic syndrome can turn into acute myeloid leukemia, and it can be treated the same way (with the same drugs at the same doses). This treatment wipes out the bone marrow for a time, in the hope that the abnormal stem cells will die and the normal bone marrow will grow back. This treatment can help some patients, but it has many severe side effects. Problems from this kind of chemo may hasten death, particularly in the elderly. Still, this treatment may be an option for some patients with advanced MDS.

Another option is to use some of the same chemo drugs, but at lower doses. This approach is less likely to make the MDS go away, but has a lower chance of serious side effects.

Common short-term side effects of chemo can include:

  • Hair loss
  • Mouth sores
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Greater chance of infection (from a shortage of white blood cells)
  • Easy bruising and bleeding (from low platelet counts)
  • Tiredness, called fatigue (from a shortage of red blood cells)

The doctor will watch carefully for all side effects and adjust treatment as needed. Your health care team often can suggest ways to lessen side effects. For example, other drugs can be given along with the chemo to prevent or reduce nausea and vomiting.

Shortages of white blood cells can lead to serious infections and patients are often given antibiotics right away if they have a fever or other symptom of infection. For more information about infections and ways to protect against them, see our document Infections in People With Cancer.

Transfusions may be needed to treat low platelet or red blood cell counts. More information about transfusions can be found in our document Blood Transfusion and Donation.

More information about specific chemotherapy drugs used to treat MDS can be found in our document, Myelodysplastic Syndrome.

Hypomethylating agents

These drugs are a form of chemo that affects the way genes are controlled. They help in MDS by slowing down genes that promote cell growth. They also kill cells that are dividing rapidly. In some MDS patients, these drugs improve blood counts, lower the chance of getting leukemia, and even prolong life. Red blood cell counts may improve enough to stop transfusions.

These drugs can have some of the same side effects as conventional chemo drugs, but these side effects are usually mild. They include:

  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Low blood counts (most often the white blood cells or platelets)

Because the side effects are milder, hypomethylating agents are used much more often than conventional chemo in the treatment of MDS. More information about these drugs can be found in our document Myelodysplastic Syndromes.

More information about specific chemotherapy drugs used to treat MDS can be found in our more detailed document, Myelodysplastic Syndrome. If you’d like more information on a drug used in your treatment, see our Guide to Cancer Drugs , or call us with the names of the medicines you’re taking.

Our document Understanding Chemotherapy: A Guide for Patients and Their Families has general information about chemo and its side effects.


Last Medical Review: 02/27/2014
Last Revised: 04/03/2014