Learn About Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS)

What is the definition of Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS)?

Myelodysplastic syndrome is a group of disorders when the blood cells produced in the bone marrow do not mature into healthy cells. This leaves you with fewer healthy blood cells in your body. The blood cells that have matured may not function properly.

Myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) is a form of cancer. In about a third of people, MDS may develop into acute myeloid leukemia.

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What are the alternative names for Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS)?

Myeloid malignancy; Myelodysplastic syndrome; MDS; Preleukemia; Smoldering leukemia; Refractory anemia; Refractory cytopenia

What are the causes of Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS)?

Stem cells in bone marrow form different types of blood cells. With MDS, the DNA in stem cells becomes damaged. Because the DNA is damaged, the stem cells can’t produce healthy blood cells.

The exact cause of MDS is not known. For most cases, there is no known cause.

Risk factors for MDS include:

  • Certain genetic disorders
  • Exposure to environmental or industrial chemicals, fertilizers, pesticides, solvents, or heavy metals
  • Smoking

Prior cancer treatment increases the risk for MDS. This is called secondary or treatment-related MDS.

  • Certain chemotherapy drugs increase the chance of developing MDS. This is a major risk factor.
  • Radiation therapy, when used with chemotherapy, increases the risk for MDS even more.
  • People who have stem cell transplants may develop MDS because they also receive high doses of chemotherapy.

MDS usually occurs in adults age of 60 years and older. It is more common in men.

What are the symptoms of Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS)?

Early stage MDS often has no symptoms. MDS is often discovered during other blood tests.

People with very low blood counts often experience symptoms. Symptoms depend on the type of blood cell affected, and they include:

  • Weakness or tiredness due to anemia
  • Shortness of breath
  • Easy bruising and bleeding
  • Small red or purple pinpoint dots under the skin caused by bleeding
  • Frequent infections and fever
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What are the current treatments for Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS)?

Your treatment will depend on several factors:

  • Whether you are low-risk or high-risk
  • The type of MDS you have
  • Your age, health, and other conditions you may have, such as diabetes or heart disease

The goal of MDS treatment is to prevent problems due to a shortage of blood cells, infections and bleeding. It may consist of:

  • Blood transfusion
  • Drugs that promote the production of blood cells
  • Drugs that suppress the immune system
  • Low-dose chemotherapy to improve blood cell counts
  • Stem cell transplantation

Your provider may try one or more treatments to see what your MDS responds to.

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What is the outlook (prognosis) for Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS)?

The outlook will depend on your type of MDS and severity of symptoms. Your overall health also may affect your chances of recovery. Many people have stable MDS that does not progress into cancer for years, if ever.

Some people with MDS may develop acute myeloid leukemia (AML).

What are the possible complications of Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS)?

MDS complications include:

  • Bleeding
  • Infections such as pneumonia, gastrointestinal infections, urinary infections
  • Acute myeloid leukemia
When should I contact a medical professional for Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS)?

Contact your provider if you:

  • Feel weak and tired most of the time
  • Bruise or bleed easily, have bleeding of the gums or frequent nosebleeds
  • You notice red or purple spots of bleeding under the skin
Bone marrow aspiration
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Who are the sources who wrote this article ?

Published Date: October 28, 2021
Published By: Todd Gersten, MD, Hematology/Oncology, Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute, Wellington, FL. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team. Editorial update 05/09/2022.

What are the references for this article ?

National Cancer Institute website. Myelodysplastic/myeloproliferative neoplasms treatment (PDQ) - health professional version. www.cancer.gov/types/myeloproliferative/hp/mds-mpd-treatment-pdq. Updated January 26, 2022. Accessed May 9, 2022.

Nguyen PL, Hasserjian RP. Myelodysplastic syndromes. In: Hsi ED, ed. Hematopathology. 3rd ed. Philadelphia PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 18.

Steensma DP, Stone RM. Myelodysplastic syndromes. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 26th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 172.