Understanding Cancer Managing the Symptoms of Polycythemia Vera

Doctor talking to patient in officeIf you are coping with polycythemia vera, or PV, it’s important to keep track of your symptoms and how they affect your daily activities. Over time, this will help your healthcare team know how to best manage this long-term diagnosis so that you can experience the best quality of life.

Here are some common symptoms of PV, along with practical steps you can take to cope with them.
Fatigue  Start a gradual exercise program. Walking can improve your strength and energy level and can also improve blood flow, which decreases the risk of blood clots. Exercising and stretching the legs and ankles improves blood circulation.
Gout  Signs of gout include swelling in one or many joints or pain in the big toe. Your doctor can prescribe various medications to control a flare-up of gout.
Itching  To keep your skin from drying out and becoming itchy, lower the temperature of your shower or bath water, especially in the winter. After bathing, pat yourself dry and use lotion to keep your skin moist. Try not to scratch; scratching can damage the skin and increase the risk of infection. Over-the-counter antihistamines like diphenhydramine (Benadryl and others) can help with severe itching. Talk with your doctor before taking any medications to make sure they won’t interfere with your treatment.
Headaches and vision problems, as well as burning, redness, or swelling of the hands and feet  Aspirin may help with these symptoms. Your doctor can determine the dosage that is best for you.
Emotional distress  Sometimes, talking with a family member, friend, or loved one can help. You may also benefit from the help of a professional oncology social worker.
Talk with your doctor before taking any medications to make sure they won’t interfere with your treatment.It’s important to focus on your overall health, which will help you better manage your PV.
Exercise and eat a healthy diet to maintain your weight. In general, the guidelines for people with PV are the same as for everyone else: eat a low-fat diet in sensible portions with fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes.


When to See Your Doctor

Here are some potential symptoms of PV that you should report to your doctor immediately:
• Changes in vision or difficulty with speech 
• Weakness or numbness on one side of the body 
• Chest discomfort or difficulty breathing 
• Severe pain or swelling in the stomach or spleen 
• Swelling, tightness, or redness in a limb, particularly the leg 
• Change in color of the fingers or toes 
• Bleeding or blood in the stool 
• Weight loss 
• Fevers or drenching sweats 
• Symptoms of anemia, such as lightheadedness or an increase in fatigue

Drink plenty of fluids. It’s important to stay well hydrated to keep your blood from thickening. Plain water, non-alcoholic drinks, and sugar-free beverages are among the best choices. Try to drink six to eight eight-ounce glasses of fluids each day. It’s fine to sip them slowly throughout the day.

Avoid tobacco. Smoking can cause the blood vessels to narrow, increasing the risk of heart attack or stroke due to blood clots. Smoking also can lead to lung and many other cancers, as well as the chronic lung disease emphysema.

Protect yourself from the sun. Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun, tanning beds, and sun lamps can damage your skin. Avoid the sun during the peak hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and use sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 30 or higher. When you are outdoors, wear protective clothing, a broad-brimmed hat, and UV-blocking sunglasses.

Take extra care of your hands and feet. People with PV who have poor circulation may be more prone to injuries from cold and heat. Wear warm gloves, socks, and shoes during the winter months. Avoid hot tubs and heated whirlpools. Stay in close touch with your healthcare team. Your doctor has created a detailed treatment plan that will allow you to live a healthier and more productive life. 

Stick with your treatment plan. Be sure to keep all your appointments for blood tests, doctor’s visits, and treatments, such as phlebotomy or interferon injections. Adhering to the plan is the best way to improve your health and quality of life.


CancerCare offers free face-to-face, telephone, and online support groups led by professional oncology social workers. To learn more, call (800) 813-4673 or visit CancerCare.org.

Reprinted with permission from cancercare.org.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2018.