What are myelodysplastic syndromes?

Myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS) are a group of cancers that form in your bone marrow. Bone marrow is the spongy part on the inside of some of your bones. It makes stem cells, which are young blood cells. In healthy bone marrow, the stem cells grow into mature blood cells that your body needs to function and fight diseases. But myelodysplastic syndromes keep stem cells from maturing. Instead, they die, which means you don't have enough healthy cells. This leads to conditions like anemia, bleeding easily and getting infections.

Causes of myelodysplastic syndromes

Your body makes three kinds of blood cells. Red blood cells help carry oxygen to different parts of your body. White blood cells help fight sicknesses. Platelets help your blood clot (thicken) when you receive an injury. Each type of MDS affects different types of blood cells in different ways.

Doctors do not know what causes most MDSs. However, some MDSs are caused by:

  • Chemotherapy and radiation therapy
  • Heavy metals such as lead and mercury
  • Toxic chemicals like tobacco, pesticides, fertilizers and benzene

Risk factors for myelodysplastic syndromes

MDSs are rare. However, you are at a higher risk of developing this cancer if you've been exposed to the chemotherapy, radiation, toxic chemicals or heavy metals that cause MDS. In addition, being over the age of 60 also increases your risk.

Symptoms of myelodysplastic syndromes

When an MDS is in an early stage of forming, you usually will not have any symptoms.

Symptoms you might develop over time include:

  • Bleeding easily
  • Feeling weak or tired
  • Bruising easily
  • Getting sick often
  • Having a hard time breathing
  • Looking more pale than usual
  • Having little pinpoint red spots just under your skin

Diagnosis of myelodysplastic syndromes

Sometimes a doctor finds that you have MDS accidentally, through a blood test given to you for another condition. Other times, you will visit your doctor due to your symptoms.

The doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms and medical history and give you a physical exam. Tests are normally ordered to begin to rule out causes of your symptoms.

Different kinds of blood tests show how many red cells, white cells and platelets you have. Some blood tests also look at the shape and size of your blood cells to see if anything is unusual.

When your doctor finds low blood count or unusual cells, additional tests may be ordered to look for things like lower levels of vitamin B12, folate or iron, which may indicate further testing is needed.

Your doctor may also order a bone marrow biopsy, which uses a needle to remove a small amount of bone marrow from your hipbone or breastbone. This sample is then tested in a lab for signs of cancer.

Treatments for myelodysplastic syndromes

The type of MDS you have determines the type of treatment you need. You and your doctor decide together which of these treatments is best for you:

Blood transfusion

In this treatment, you’ll receive either donated red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets — or sometimes whole blood containing all three types — through an IV in a vein in your arm. The type of blood cells you receive depends on what type you may need.

Bone marrow transplant

Chemotherapy (using chemicals to kill cancer cells) clears out the dead stem cells from your bone marrow. Then your doctor puts healthy stem cells from a donor in their place.


Depending on the type of MDS you have, certain medicines are used to treat the condition. For example, some medicines help you grow more blood cells. Others help stem cells mature, fight infections or lower your white blood cell count so you don't need a red blood cell transfusion.

Recovery from myelodysplastic syndromes

Myelodysplastic syndromes are hard to cure.

You may choose treatments, or you may decide to manage the symptoms and treat as a chronic condition. Whichever you choose, attend follow-up appointments with your doctor. They'll help you monitor symptoms and watch for signs of possible progression of the MDS.

Practice good hygiene habits like washing your hands and cooking and cleaning your foods completely to avoid getting sick.

Find a blood cancer specialist nearby

Mercy Health locations that can treat you