Chemotherapy is not used to treat or cure MDS. However, high-dose chemotherapy may be used before a stem cell transplant to rid the body of cancer cells. It may also be used for MDS that has become acute myeloid leukemia or to ease symptoms caused by the disease.

Chemotherapy Drugs and Delivery

MDS is treated with cytarabine and 1 other drug. These are:

  • Idarubicin
  • Topotecan
  • Fludarabine

Chemotherapy is most often given through and IV and is done in cycles over time. It may also be given as a shot under the skin. The drugs and how often they are used depend on the type of MDS and the problems you have. It is common for MDS to come back after chemotherapy. If so, the mix of drugs may be changed.

Side Effects and Management

Chemotherapy can cause a range of health problems. The most common are:

  • Low red or white blood cell, or platelet counts
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Hair loss
  • Mouth sores
  • Fever
  • In high doses, problems with how the brain works

There are many ways to manage these problems. Medicines and lifestyle changes are the most common. In some cases, the cycles may be changed to lower the chances of serious problems. Talk to your care team as soon as these appear so they can be better controlled.


Chemotherapy for myelodysplastic syndromes. American Cancer Society website. Available at: Updated January 22, 2018. Accessed March 15, 2019.

Cytarabine. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: Updated November 30, 2018. Accessed March 15, 2019.

Myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS). EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: Updated October 15, 2018. Accessed March 15, 2019.

Treatment option overview. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: Updated June 14, 2018. Accessed March 15, 2019.

Last reviewed December 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Mohei Abouzied, MD, FACP  Last Updated: 3/15/2019