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Clinical Specialties - Cancer

Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS)

Haematologic Malignancy MDTMyelodysplastic syndromes (MDS) are a group of closely related diseases in which the bone marrow produces too few functioning red blood cells (which carry oxygen), white blood cells (which fight infection), or platelets(which prevent or stop bleeding), or any combination of the three. The different types of myelodysplastic syndromes are diagnosed based on certain changes in the blood cells and bone marrow. The cells in the blood and bone marrow (also called myelo) usually look abnormal (or dysplastic), hence the name myelodysplastic syndromes.

The blood cancer experts at Sydney Adventist Hospital use several methods to confirm your diagnosis and determine the stage of your disease. They have experience with early-stage as well as complex cancer; have access to advanced diagnostic tools and a wide range of treatments, including clinical trials. At the same time, our supportive clinicians help you manage side effects to support your quality of life. Explore this section to learn more about myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), its side effects and your treatment options.

About myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS)

Myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS, or myelodysplasia) are a group of diseases which essentially affect the production of normal blood cells in the bone marrow. MDS occurs as a result of a mutation (or change) in one or more of the genes that control blood cell development. This change or changes results in the abnormal growth of blood stem cells.

In MDS, abnormal bone marrow stem cells (called blast cells) produce increased numbers of immature blood cells. These cells do not grow properly and often die prematurely. This results in lower numbers of mature red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets being produced. The blood cells that do survive are often of inferior quality, are not of normal shape (dysplastic) and are unable to function correctly. This means that people with MDS often have a very active bone marrow but a low number of circulating blood cells. Without enough red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets, you can become very tired, more susceptible to infections, bleeding and bruise more easily.

What are the symptoms of MDS?

A shortage of red blood cells (anaemia) can lead to excessive tiredness, shortness of breath, and pale skin. A shortage of normal white blood cells (leukopenia) can lead to a susceptibility to frequent or severe infections, either viral or bacterial, especially in the lungs, throat, sinuses and skin, as well as mouth or ear infections or periodontal disease.

A shortage of blood platelets can lead to easy bruising and bleeding. Some people notice frequent or severe nosebleeds or bleeding from the gums. Rashes and pinpoint red spots on the skin are also symptoms of a shortage of blood platelets.

Other symptoms can include having skin that is paler than usual, weakness, weight loss, fever, and loss of appetite. Some patients have no symptoms.

It is important to remember that these symptoms may be attributed to a number of conditions other than cancer. If you are concerned consult with your general practitioner (GP).

How is MDS diagnosed?

Myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) can be difficult to diagnose.

Many people who are diagnosed with MDS go to their doctor with some or all of the symptoms typical of MDS, whilst others can be diagnosed with no obvious symptoms. Sometimes MDS is identified during a routine check-up when mild blood-count abnormalities are returned from blood tests.

Several other diseases can be confused with MDS, including:

  • Aplastic anaemia
  • Certain leukaemia’s, including acute leukaemia and large granular lymphocytic leukaemia
  • HIV infection
  • An overactive immune system

Proper diagnosis is crucial so that you receive the most-effective treatment for MDS. Often, you will be referred to a haematologist (a doctor who specialises in blood disorders). A definitive diagnosis can be provided only after a specialist called a haematopathologist examines a sample of your bone marrow.

What are my treatment options for MDS?

If you have been diagnosed with MDS, our blood cancer specialists will tailor a course of treatment specific to you. Factors that will be taken in to consideration will include:

  • The severity of the disease
  • Any prior treatments you’ve received
  • Whether you are a candidate for a stem cell transplant
  • Your age and overall health

If you have been diagnosed with MDS, you may be able to receive a stem cell transplant, also called a bone marrow transplant. It has the potential to cure MDS.

Supportive care is at the heart of MDS treatment and its goal is to help alleviate or prevent symptoms from low blood counts. Some supportive care treatment may include:

  • Blood transfusion - This is a method of giving red blood cells, white blood cells or platelets to replace blood cells destroyed by disease or treatment.
  • Growth factors - Giving extra doses of hormone-like substances that stimulate bone marrow to produce blood cells, called hematopoietic growth factors, can help the blood counts of MDS patients to become more normal.

The expert blood cancer specialists at Sydney Adventist Hospital will tailor your treatment to get the best outcome for you.

Resources and useful MDS links
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