Platelets, the smallest proteins that make up blood, are responsible for causing clots at the site of injury to prevent further blood loss. Though their function is important, too many of these platelets can lead to a condition known as thrombocytosis. Now, new research suggests that this blood disorder may be even more dangerous than previously believed, and could be an early sign of cancer.

The study, now published online in The British Journal of General Practice, revealed that high blood platelet count in some cases may be the only outward indication of cancer. For example, according to the report, nearly one-third of patients with thrombocytosis and lung or colorectal cancer had no other symptoms of their cancer. This research may have identified the first new indicator of cancer in 30 years, and the researchers hope their finding can be used to save lives through earlier diagnosis.

The study consisted of the medical records of 40,000 individuals, and results showed that more than 11 percent of men and 6 percent of women over the age of 40 with high blood platelet count went on to be diagnosed with cancer within a year. In addition, this number further rose if the individual had a second raised platelet count within six months of the first.

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"We know that early diagnosis is absolutely key in whether people survive cancer,” said lead study author Dr. Sarah Bailey, in a recent statement. “Our research suggests that substantial numbers of people could have their cancer diagnosed up to three months earlier if thrombocytosis prompted investigation for cancer. This time could make a vital difference in achieving earlier diagnosis."

According to the team, if a conservative estimate of 5 percent of people with cancer have thrombocytosis before their cancer diagnosis, then a third of this group could potentially receive their cancer diagnosis months earlier. As in the case with so many types of cancer, early diagnosis is often key to better recovery and survival.

“Our findings on thrombocytosis show a strong association with cancer, particularly in men - far stronger than that of a breast lump for breast cancer in women,” explained study co-author Willie Hamilton in a statement. “It is now crucial that we roll out cancer investigation of thrombocytosis. It could save hundreds of lives each year."

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, normal platelet count ranges from 150,000 to 450,000 platelets per microliter of blood. Thrombocytosis occurs when individuals have more than 450,000 platelets, while having less than 150,000 is known as thrombocytopenia. There are two types of thrombocytosis: primary, or essential, and secondary. Primary thrombocytosis is caused by unknown reasons, while secondary is caused by an ongoing medical condition, such as anemia or an infection.

Some common symptoms of having too many blood platelets include: skin bruising or bleeding from various areas such as the nose, mouth, and gums, or the stomach and intestinal tract. In some cases, the condition can also cause pain, swelling, numbness and tingling in the hands and feet, The Cleveland Clinic reported.

Source: Bailey SER, Ukoumunne OC, SHephard EA, Hamilton W.Clinical relevance of thrombocytosis in primary care: a prospective cohort study of cancer incidence using English electronic medical records and cancer registry data. British Journal of General Practice . 2017

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