The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 48

59. Is systemic mastocytosis a form of cancer? Why do some papers say the life expectancy for systemic mastocytosis patients is much shorter?

Systemic mastocytosis is a term that different people use in different ways, often without defining them for the audience. This can lead to some confusion.

In its broadest sense, systemic mastocytosis is actually a disease category rather than one specific diagnosis. The subtypes of systemic mastocytosis are indolent systemic mastocytosis (ISM), smoldering systemic mastocytosis (SSM), systemic mastocytosis with associated hematologic disease (SM-AHD), aggressive systemic mastocytosis (ASM), and mast cell leukemia (MCL).

When patients talk about systemic mastocytosis without specifying which diagnosis, they almost always mean indolent systemic mastocytosis (ISM), the most common form of SM. ISM is benign and has a normal life expectancy. But when providers and researchers talk about systemic mastocytosis, they usually mean the disease category that includes all of these diagnoses.

I just recently explained in another post what a neoplasm is. It is essentially when the body grows something that doesn’t belong there, like extra cells or a tumor. Cancers are neoplasms but not all neoplasms are cancerous. Indolent systemic mastocytosis is not cancerous. Even without taking drugs to kill off lots of mast cells, the prognosis is excellent with a normal life span. However, aggressive systemic mastocytosis and mast cell leukemia are considered cancerous. Without taking drugs to kill off mast cells, the body would be unable to cope with the huge number of mast cells and the damage they cause. Smoldering systemic mastocytosis is sort of a bridge between ISM, which is benign, and ASM, which is not.

If you are not aware that research papers usually use the term systemic mastocytosis to mean all forms of systemic mastocytosis and not just indolent systemic mastocytosis (ISM), it is easy to get confused and misunderstand what is being said. There was a paper published in 2009 that discussed expected survival for the various forms of systemic mastocytosis. It provides a very jarring statistic for patients who may not understand the context. This study found that many patients with systemic mastocytosis died 3-5 years after diagnosis.

Let’s pull this apart. We know there are five forms of SM: indolent SM, the most common form, which usually has a normal life span; smoldering SM, which usually has a shortened life span; aggressive SM, which can have a very shortened life span; mast cell leukemia, which has a very shortened life span; and SM with an associated hematologic disorder, which may have a shortened life span. When you average the life expectancies for a mixed group of patients with these various diagnoses, it shows that overall, SM patients are more likely to die 3-5 years after diagnosis when compared to healthy people of the same age.

Additionally, a lot of the patients in this study group were older and died of causes unrelated to systemic mastocytosis. However, because they were part of the study, their deaths of unrelated causes were still included in this data.

Let’s recap: in a research paper, the term systemic mastocytosis includes forms of SM that are malignant and can really shorten your life expectancy as well as forms that are benign and do not shorten your life expectancy. When you average the life expectancies of all of these forms together, it looks like patients are more likely to die 3-5 years after diagnosis. A bunch of other papers then used the data from this study in 2009 without explaining the details behind it. However, most patients with SM have normal life spans.

For more detailed information, please visit these posts:

The Provider Primer Series: Diagnosis and natural history of systemic mastocytosis (ISM, SSM, ASM)

The Provider Primer Series: Natural history of SM-AHD, MCL and MCS