Polycythemia vera is a blood cancer that begins in the marrow of your bones. This is the soft center where new blood cells grow. The marrow can then make too many red blood cells that cause your blood to get too thick and can make you more likely to have blood clots, a stroke or a heart attack.
This particular disease develops very slowly and can be life-threatening if you don’t get treatment. Most people have a good chance of living a long life when they get the right care. They usually find they have this condition when they are 60 or older and is more common among men than women.
You might experience some warning signs like dizziness or feeling tired and weak. The first sign might be when a routine blood test shows you have a high number of blood cells. Your doctor may want to just check you regularly without any treatment, as it depends on your age and particular case. Keep in mind that everyone is different and all cancers aren’t the same.
Polycythemia vera isn’t something that you catch like a cold or flu, rather it’s something you get because you have a gene called JAK2 that doesn’t work right. This particular gene is supposed to make sure your bone marrow makes 3 types of blood cells: red, white and platelets. The red blood cells carry oxygen, white fight infections and the platelets will clot the blood to stop bleeding. Usually this patient will have too many red blood cells but the disease can also cause you to have too many white blood cells and platelets. Even though it’s rare that your parents have passed this broken gene, it can happen. The problem in your JAK2 gene happened over the course of your life.
Some symptoms would be headaches, double vision, itching, sweating, reddened face, weakness, dizziness, weight loss, shortness of breath, tingling in hands or feet, painful swelling of a joint or feeling pressure or fullness below the ribs on your left side. (enlarged spleen)
You should have a complete physical exam with all the appropriate blood tests and be sure to relay any and all symptoms you are having. If the blood tests indicate you may need to get a bone marrow biopsy. This biopsy is usually taken from the back of your hipbone and is an outpatient procedure. It can be done in a clinic, a hospital or in your doctor’s office. Be sure and compile a list of questions for your doctor.
Treatment will vary from person to person and your doctor might only need to keep a close watch on your health. The goal is to lower the number of red blood cells and prevent blood clots and other complications. Phlebotomy is often the first treatment for this condition where the doctor removes blood from your vein. If you’ve ever donated blood, it’s much like that and will lower the number of your blood cells. The blood will then be thinner and flow better.
Take care of yourself with a few steps: don’t smoke or chew tobacco, get some light exercise, do leg and ankle exercises, bathe or shower in cool water if warm water causes itching, and keep your skin moist with lotion so as not to scratch.
There is no cure but treatment can let you manage this disease for many years. Your condition may lead to acute leukemia or myelofibrosis, which are more acute blood diseases. Support can help through the MPN Research Foundation and they have more information about polycythemia vera.