Always More to Learn, or Relearn, About Blood

At the newspaper where I was a reporter, if you read a too-long story or were making fun of yourself for writing one, you would say that it contained everything you NEVER wanted to know about a subject. You could also apply this to a topic you had to learn a lot about even if it hadn’t been on your wish list.

Well, I thought I had learned everything I never wanted to know about blood and blood cancer in the 17 years since my acute myeloid leukemia diagnosis. Yet the other day, a blood test result contained a word I didn’t know. I saw it in an email my nurse practitioner sent me about a test I had. I wouldn’t say I was alarmed because she said everything looked good, but I was puzzled and a little bit anxious.

"I didn't know I was anemic!"

I got the test at an outpatient lab near my home in Western Massachusetts, so I didn’t have a chance to talk to a doctor afterward. They were doing it because my kidney numbers were slightly off at my last lab test.

“We measured your erythropoietin level,” she wrote. “It is low for the level of your anemia. This is not surprising given the mild decrease in kidney function. We can supplement erythropoietin with an injection if needed. It would be recommended if your hemoglobin or HCT decline from the current level. For now, your hemoglobin is 10.9.”

OK so for starters, I didn’t even know I was anemic! I feel good and am doing my usual crazy exercise routine. I looked it up and found that for women, normal hemoglobin is 12.0 to 15.5 grams per deciliter.1

So I guess I was slightly anemic and didn’t know it. Now for some more investigative journalism...

What does 'erythropoietin level' mean?

When I looked it up, the first thing I learned was its abbreviation: EPO. A word like this is a mouthful and should have an abbreviation!

Then I learned it is a "hormone that your kidney makes to trigger your bone marrow to make red blood cells. A normal EPO level means that your body can make healthy red blood cells. Healthy oxygen levels are linked to having enough red blood cells.”2

So now I know, unless it gets better on its own or until I get a shot, I can say “My erythropoietin level is low” if I can’t get to a tennis ball.

Then, there are words that you’ve heard multiple times, but you forget what they mean because you don’t hear them as much as you hear words such as hemoglobin or hematocrit.

Relearning about eosinophils

For me, one of those words is eosinophils. The word makes me think of Eeyore, the gloomy donkey from Winnie the Pooh. Short version: They are a type of disease-fighting white blood cell.

I heard a lot about them once because a friend with a different type of blood cancer was having prolonged difficulty with high eosinophils.

Eosinophilia (e-o-sin-o-FILL-e-uh) is the name for a higher than normal level of eosinophils. They couldn’t nail down the cause. It can be all over the place, most commonly a parasitic infection or an allergic reaction, according to the Mayo Clinic.3

The friend was distressed by this at the time, but she is fine now, years later. I don’t want to jinx myself, but it also sounds like my high erythropoietin level will get resolved one way or another.

One thing’s for sure, there is always more to learn, or relearn when you’re talking about such a complex tissue as the blood.

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