What to know about cancer and blood clots

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What to know about cancer and blood clots

When fighting cancer, there are many things to consider. Issues of fatigue, nausea/vomiting or pain can be a few examples of possible side effects.  One other possible side effect someone with cancer is at risk for but rarely mentioned is blood clots also known as thrombosis.

When compared to the general population, people with cancer are four times more likely to develop a serious blood clot. A blood clot deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is the type of clot more likely to develop in the leg, pelvis, or arms in someone with cancer.  All blood clots are potentially dangerous, but DVT is particularly so as it can move through the body and lodge itself in the lungs, becoming a pulmonary embolism (PE).  Together, DVT and PE are known as venous thromboembolism (VTE) – a dangerous and potentially deadly medical condition.

Why are cancer patients at a higher risk for blood clots?  Let’s take a look at the numerous reasons why:

·      Depends on the type of cancer

It is not known exactly why, but certain cancers pose a higher risk of blood clots forming than others. Cancers of the lungs, brain, kidneys, ovaries, and pancreas and lymphoma blood cancers are all connected with a higher risk for blood clots. Even though these types of cancers are associated with a higher risk, all individuals with a cancer diagnosis should be aware of the causes and dangers of blood clots.

·      Chemotherapy and hormone therapy can increase risk

Many cancer patients receiving chemotherapy can experience extreme fatigue, leaving them inactive for weeks or months. Inactivity is a risk factor for blood clots to form. Just receiving chemotherapy increases one’s risk. On the one hand, chemotherapy does its job of killing cancer cells, but while doing so, it releases substances in to the bloodstream that increase clotting. However, not all chemotherapy drugs are the same and some are less likely to cause clotting than others.

Cancer patients who receive hormone therapy may be at an increased risk for blood clots for various reasons. Hormone treatments can interfere with the body’s estrogen levels, thickening the blood which allows clots to form.  This is particularly the case in hormone therapy for breast cancer. All cancer patients should discuss with their oncologist their risk of developing blood clots that may be associated with their cancer treatments.

·      Surgery increases blood clot risk

While surgery can be a crucial component of fighting back cancer, it also increases the risk of VTE. Cancer patients who are older or obese seem to be at a higher risk for this than other patients. The driving factor of why surgery places one at risk for blood clots is that surgery leaves patients inactive for an extended time during the recovery process. Inactivity for prolonged periods of time for anyone raises the risk of blood clots forming. Surgery can also damage blood vessel walls which can affect the way blood flows through the body increasing the likelihood of a blood clot forming.

Reducing risk of blood clots with cancer

Even though certain cancers may raise the risk of blood clots forming, there are steps one can take to prevent a clot. First, a thorough discussion with their doctor about using low-dose anticoagulant (blood-thinning) medications to keep clots from forming is a must. Cancer patients should also consider wearing compression stockings.  Compression stockings massage the legs which encourages blood flow that helps prevent blood clots.  

Remaining physically active during treatment is a must. While many cancer patients are not feeling their best, taking short walks several times each day or performing leg exercises while seated along with stretching can promote healthy blood flow. Even simply marching in place for a minute several times a day, can make a big difference in preventing blood clots.  

Lastly, know the signs and risk factors of blood clots.  By becoming knowledgeable about blood clots can save a life in the long run.