What is blood cancer?
Blood cancer represents a large group of different malignancies. This group includes cancers of the bone marrow, blood, and lymphatic system, which includes lymph nodes, lymphatic vessels, tonsils, thymus, spleen, and digestive tract lymphoid tissue. Leukemia and myeloma, which start in the bone marrow, and lymphoma, which starts in the lymphatic system, are the most common types of blood cancer. What causes these cancers is not known.
As leukemia and myeloma grow within the bone marrow, they can interfere with the bone marrow’s ability to produce normal blood cells, including white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. This can cause frequent infections, anemia, and easy bruising. Lymphomas, which most typically appear as enlargement of the lymph nodes, can also interfere with the body’s ability to fight infections. Additionally, myelomas generate a substance that weakens bones, and produce abnormal proteins that can cause symptoms in other parts of the body.
Treatment of blood cancers has undergone substantial improvements, resulting in increased rates of remission and survival. Specific gene mutations have been identified and targeted for treatment. Remission occurs when there is no sign of cancer. Today in the United States, almost 1 million people are alive with, or in remission from, blood cancer. (Source: LLS).
People who have blood cancer can have problems with bleeding and serious infections. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for symptoms such as uncontrolled bleeding, severe sweating, difficulty breathing, pale or blue lips or fingernails, high fever (greater than 101 degrees Fahrenheit), fast heart rate, confusion, loss or change in level of consciousness, or anxiety.
What are the symptoms of blood cancer?
Blood cancer can produce a variety of symptoms, or none at all.
Common symptoms of blood cancer
Symptoms of blood cancer can include:
Abdominal pain, especially in the upper abdomen
Bone fractures (spontaneous or resulting from minimal trauma)
Bone or joint pain
Easy bleeding or bruising
Enlarged liver and glands, such as the spleen and lymph nodes
Fever and chills
Nausea, which may be described as feelings of wooziness, queasiness, retching, sea-sickness, car-sickness or upset stomach
Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition
In some cases, blood cancer can be life threatening, especially if severe infections or uncontrollable bleeding occur. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:
Bluish coloration of the lips or fingernails
Change in level of consciousness or alertness, such as passing out or unresponsiveness
High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)
Rapid heart rate (tachycardia)
Severe abdominal pain
Uncontrolled or heavy bleeding
What causes blood cancer?
Although the specific cause of blood cancer is not known, a number of factors are associated with its development. Many blood cancers are more common among older adults. Some tend to run in families. Certain infections also appear to increase the risk of some blood cancers, as does a weakened immune system.
A number of factors increase the risk of developing blood cancer. Not all people with risk factors will get blood cancer. Risk factors for blood cancer include:
Certain types of infections
Compromised immune system due to such conditions as HIV/AIDS, taking corticosteroids, or organ transplant
Exposure to certain chemicals
Exposure to radiation or certain types of chemotherapy
Family history of blood cancer
Solid organ transplant recipient
Personal history of certain blood disorders
Personal history of certain genetic disorders (Down syndrome)
How is blood cancer treated?
Goal of cancer treatment
The goal of blood cancer treatment is to permanently cure the cancer or to bring about a complete remission of the disease. Remission means that there is no longer any sign of the disease in the body, although it may recur or relapse later.
Some blood cancers grow slowly enough that delaying treatment may be an option. If the decision to delay treatment is made, close follow-up, called watchful waiting, is needed so that significant progression can be identified and treatments can be started when needed.
Common treatments for blood cancer
Several therapies are available to treat blood cancers including:
Biological therapy to attack cancer cells
Chemotherapy to attack cancer cells
Participation in a clinical trial testing promising new treatments for blood cancers
Radiation therapy to attack cancer cells
Stem cell transplant to provide healthy stem cells that can make healthy blood cells
Targeted therapy to attack specific cancer cells or signaling proteins
Watchful waiting to identify when to start treatment
Other treatments for blood cancer
Other therapies may be added to help with your general state of health and any complications of the cancer or its treatment including:
Anti-nausea medications if needed
Antibiotics and other medications to reduce the likelihood of getting infections
Blood transfusions to temporarily replace blood components (such as red blood cells or platelets)
Dental care to manage oral symptoms of leukemia or chemotherapy
Dietary counseling to help people with cancer maintain their strength and nutritional status
Pain medications if needed to increase comfort
Surgery to remove an enlarged spleen or to treat bone fractures
Vaccinations to prevent diseases like the flu and pneumonia
Some complementary treatments may help some people to better deal with blood cancer and its treatments. These treatments, sometimes referred to as alternative therapies, are used in conjunction with traditional medical treatments. Complementary treatments are not meant to substitute for traditional medical care. Be sure to notify your doctor if you are consuming nutritional supplements or homeopathic (nonprescription) remedies as they may interact with the prescribed medical therapy.
Complementary treatments may include:
Nutritional dietary supplements, herbal remedies, tea beverages, and similar products
In cases in which blood cancer has progressed to an advanced stage and has become unresponsive to treatment, the goal of treatment may shift away from curing the disease and focus on measures to keep a person comfortable and maximize the quality of life. Hospice care involves medically controlling pain and other symptoms while providing psychological and spiritual support as well as services to support the patient’s family.
Complications of untreated or poorly controlled blood cancer can be serious, even life threatening in some cases. You can help minimize your risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you. Complications of blood cancer include:
Amyloidosis (rare immune-related disorder characterized by protein buildup in organs and tissues that can cause serious complications)
Anemia (low red blood cell count)
Hypercalcemia (increased calcium in the blood)
Hyperviscosity syndrome (thickened blood that is difficult for the heart to pump)
Immune deficiency and frequent Infections
Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes)
Peripheral neuropathy (disorder that causes dysfunction of nerves that lie outside your brain and spinal cord)
Recurrence of cancer after remission
Spread of cancer