Managing the symptoms associated with myelofibrosis (MF), polycythemia vera (PV), and essential thrombocythemia (ET) can be frustrating, which is why communication with one’s healthcare team is so important. Dr. Naveen Pemmaraju provides an overview of common symptoms and shares advice for management.
Dr. Naveen Pemmaraju is Director of the Blastic Plasmacytoid Dendritic Cell Neoplasm (BPDCN) Program in the Department of Leukemia at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Learn more about Dr. Pemmaraju.
I’d like to move on to common MPN symptoms now. Let’s start with myelofibrosis. What are the symptoms associated with this particular MPN?
Excellent question. So, for the myelofibrosis, generally thought to be our most advanced of the MPNs, can be low risk, intermediate to high risk. We’ll focus our comments here on intermediate to high risk, the more advanced MF. This is important because not only what I’m going to tell you is sort of a subjective list of symptoms, but because of the work of my great friend, Ruben Mesa, who pioneered the MPN symptom burden, we’ve actually been able to, as he and I say, quantify the unquantifiable.
So, take subjective information and turn it into objective. For example, we know that among the three MPNs, PV, ET, and MF, that fatigue is by far the most common symptom that our patients report. It’s a fatigue that’s more than the general feeling tired at the end of the day. It’s sometimes a wiped-out fatigue. Some of our patients will have pruritus or itching. Many of our patients will have early satiety, which means getting full too early because either the spleen is too big, decreasing the appetite. Bone pain and neuropathy can happen in our MF patients. Brain fog and decreased concentration, huge issue among a lot of our patients. And finally, because of the low blood counts, if a myelofibrosis patient is anemic, they can have those issues. So, fatigue, shortness of breath, even chest pain and palpitations. If the platelets are too low, or too high for that matter, bleeding or clotting.
So, the problem with myelofibrosis, it ranges the gamut from the low-risk patients, who can be treated maybe even as a PV or ET observation or not as advanced treatment paradigm, all the way to intermediate high risk where patients are cachectic, losing weight, not feeling well, drenching night sweats. And all of these can be captured on not only the scoring systems but also the symptom burden scales. And to be honest with you, this is the majority of what our patients are feeling outside of the blood counts and outside of the objective information. So much so to the point, Katherine, where a patient can present with these symptoms solely, without ever having a blood count or a bone marrow or anything, and then it leads to the work of it.
Oh, wow. Wow, fascinating – what about symptoms for polycythemia vera?
Yeah, so this is a great theme that you’ve got going here, which is know your body. If you know your body, then you’re able to tell what’s abnormal or normal. p. vera can be a bit more subtle.
Oftentimes patients with p. vera can have a normal life expectancy and the longer term series in Europe show that it’s basically about the same life expectancy as the general population or slightly lower. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Patients with p. vera can have an unbelievable symptom burden, either from the hyperviscosity of the hematocrit, the blood level being too high or the cytokine storm, that I mentioned, that makes people feel not well. So fatigue, brain fog, feelings of sluggishness, feeling too full, those are common in p. vera.
The treatments are aimed at trying to make that better. So, phlebotomy to bring the hematocrit down below 45 can make you feel a little bit lighter, a little bit better, decrease the brain fog. If you’re using either the standard treatments of Hydrea or interferon, and then, of course, the baby aspirin to prevent clots, heart attacks, stroke. The newer agents in p. vera include the ropeginterferon that we mentioned earlier, clinical trials, such as the PTG-300 that I’m a part of, that try to really keep the blood levels normal all the time.
And so hopefully help to improve the quality of life, decrease the chance of having a clot, and also hopefully try to make patients feel better from these aspects.
What about essential thrombocythemia or ET?
ET, again, just like PV, you can have a lot of patients who are either incidentally diagnosed or not too much of a symptom burden. But again, here, the blood counts don’t tell the story. You can have “low risk ET” which is defined as less than 60 or no prior blood clots. So, you can be 43 years old, diagnosed with ET, your blood counts aren’t that high, but yet you’re still feeling overwhelming fatigue, itching. You’re seeing flashing things in your eyes called scotomas. You’re having small nerve or vascular issues called erythromelalgias. It’s a very elusive and difficult disease, particularly for our young patients. So, in ET, again, the same set of symptoms can happen. This fatigue, itching, the brain fog, concentration, bleeding, and or clotting.
And so again, the goal of therapy is to mitigate those. If you’re young, a lot of patients are either observed or baby aspirin. If you’re older than 60 or have high risk features, then again, cytoreductive therapy. The other aspect I should mention is you can start out with one of these, and it transforms into the other. That’s called clinical or phenotypic shifts. You can start out as an ET, go to PV. You can start out as PV and go to myelofibrosis. You can start out as myelofibrosis and go to acute myeloid leukemia. So, that’s why follow-up, even over years, decades, is important, preferably with an expert team, because you never know when one of these things wants to transform. And then your side effect, or I should say your symptom profile therefore changes with that transformation.