A common — and potentially serious — complication of cancer treatment with chemotherapy is a drop in blood cell counts, according to the Mayo Clinic. Depending on your treatment, your doctor might check your levels of white blood cells, red blood cells or platelets.
When your red blood cell count is low, you have a condition called anemia. "Anemia is one of the most common [side effects] we see," Kelsey Martin, MD, an oncologist and assistant professor of clinical medicine at the Yale School of Medicine, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "It can develop from chemotherapy treatment itself, blood loss from surgery and radiation."
Having anemia also means you'll be low in hemoglobin (Hgb), which delivers oxygen around your body, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). Normal hemoglobin levels are 12 to 15.5 grams per deciliter (g/dL) for women and 13.5 to 17.5 for men, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Most patients will feel symptoms — such as fatigue — when their Hgb drops below 10, Megan Kruse, MD, an oncologist at the Cleveland Clinic, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "Many times hemoglobin levels will go down over the course of chemo ... it has a pretty predictable pattern," she says.
In some cases, eating a diet rich in iron and B vitamins can help your body rebuild its red blood cell and hemoglobin levels. If, however, your numbers dip into the 7 to 8 g/dL range, your doctor may have to take additional steps. "That's when we may talk to a patient about needing a transfusion," Dr. Kruse says.
Iron-Rich Foods for Low Hgb
Used to make hemoglobin, iron is a vitally important mineral found in all of your body's cells, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Because of this, your iron levels may be checked routinely during chemotherapy.
To help improve your hemoglobin count, aim to add iron-rich foods to your diet such as beans, dried fruit, leafy greens and ready-to-eat cereals, breads and pastas that are fortified with iron, according to the ACS. Using cast iron cookware can also help to increase iron in your diet.
Pair that iron with foods containing vitamin C, since the nutrient helps your body optimize its absorption of iron, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Incorporate citrus fruits, berries, tomatoes and sweet potatoes into your iron-heavy meals.
B Vitamins for Red Blood Cell Production
If you eat animal proteins, meat and eggs are good sources of naturally occurring B12, and the B12 from these sources is more easily absorbed by your body than the plant variety, according to the Library of Medicine. You can get folate from leafy greens, dried beans and lentils and B6 from bananas, nuts and avocado.
Read more: The Best Foods to Eat if You Have Cancer