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Is MDS a Cancer?: June 1, 2013

“Myelodysplastic Syndrome is kind of under the radar because in some ways it’s a malignancy and in other ways people don’t think about it that way,” says Dr. Bill Harwin, oncologist on Lee Memorial Health System’s medical staff.

When people think of cancer, they most often associate it with malignant tumors; it’s true in most cases, but not all. Myelodysplastic Syndrome, or MDS, is a case in point.

“It’s a disorder of the bone marrow whereby usually there’s some type of chromosome abnormality that causes a failure to produce the normal cells. The older term is pre-leukemia because some, but not all, patients over time will evolve into an acute leukemia, which is more obviously a malignancy,” says Dr. Harwin.

1 out of 3 people with MDS will develop Acute Myeloid Leukemia. As doctors learn more about this syndrome, they’ve concluded that MDS is itself a form of cancer.

“This is kind of a quasi-cancer, so it’s not the best example. Generally in a cancer, the definition is there’s some type of genetic abnormality which is an uncontrolled proliferation, in which cells don’t have the normal stops and normal controls,” says Dr. Harwin.

That’s the case with MDS, at its core; there is an abnormality in cell replication. Most common in people over 60, it can also develop in younger patients who’ve had treatment for a previous cancer.  MDS varies in severity and may be treated with drugs or chemotherapy, but is only curable with a bone marrow transplant.

“From either a compatible sibling or an unrelated donor, but that’s usually not an option for patients that are in their 70s and 80s; usually just for younger patients,” says Dr. Harwin.

While it may not be a textbook cancer, MDS has the bloodlines to merit that designation.