Blood Cancer Awareness
Blood cancer, also known as hematological cancer, is a type of cancer that affects the blood, bone marrow, and lymphatic system. Blood cancers prevent the blood from doing its job of fighting infections and transporting oxygen throughout the body.
While blood cancers are less common than some other types of cancer, it's still important to be aware of the symptoms, risk factors, and treatment options for blood cancer. Raising awareness can help more people recognize the signs early and improve outcomes.
This article will provide an overview of blood cancer awareness including:
Types of Blood Cancer
There are several different types of blood cancers, which originate from different blood cell types:
Leukemia is a cancer of the body's blood-forming tissues, including the bone marrow and lymphatic system. In leukemia, the bone marrow produces abnormal white blood cells, which don't function properly.
The four main types of leukemia are:
- Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL): Develops from immature forms of lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell. It progresses quickly and requires immediate treatment. ALL is most common in children.
- Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL): A type of cancer that affects lymphocytes and tends to progress slowly. It is rare in people under 40.
- Acute myeloid leukemia (AML): Originates in other types of immature white blood cells found in the bone marrow, interfering with the production of normal blood cells. Progresses quickly.
- Chronic myeloid leukemia (CML): Originates from abnormal white blood cells in the bone marrow. Tends to progress slowly at first. More common in adults.
Lymphoma is a blood cancer that develops in the lymphatic system from lymphocytes. There are two main categories:
- Hodgkin lymphoma: Named after Dr. Thomas Hodgkin, who first described it. Spread through the lymph nodes. Often curable, especially when caught early.
- Non-Hodgkin lymphoma: A diverse group of blood cancers originating from lymphocytes. Can be either indolent (slow-growing) or aggressive. Diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL) is the most common type of aggressive NHL.
Myeloma, also called multiple myeloma, develops from plasma cells found in the bone marrow. Plasma cells are a type of white blood cell responsible for producing antibodies. In myeloma, these plasma cells become cancerous and produce abnormal proteins that accumulate in the bone marrow, interfering with normal blood cell production.
The myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS) are a group of disorders affecting bone marrow and blood cell production. In MDS, the bone marrow produces defective blood cells that don't function properly. MDS can progress to acute myeloid leukemia (AML).
Common Signs and Symptoms
Some common signs and symptoms of blood cancers include:
- Fatigue: Feeling constantly tired or weak. One of the most common symptoms.
- Frequent infections: Blood cancers can lower your infection-fighting white blood cells. Even minor infections may linger.
- Bruising or bleeding: Cancers like leukemia can cause low platelet counts, leading to excessive bruising or bleeding with minor injuries.
- Bone pain: Some blood cancers like myeloma can cause bone pain resulting from bone damage.
- Swollen lymph nodes: Cancers like lymphoma can cause swollen nodes in the neck, underarms, or groin.
- Abdominal swelling or fullness: Enlarged organs like the liver or spleen can press on the abdomen.
- Unexplained weight loss: Some blood cancers boost metabolism, leading to weight loss for no apparent reason.
- Pain or sense of "fullness" below ribs: Enlarged spleen pressing up under the ribs.
- Headaches or confusion: Some blood cancers can spread to the brain and spinal cord.
- Night sweats: Drenching night sweats are a common symptom of lymphoma.
These symptoms can also result from other medical conditions. See your doctor if these symptoms persist, as prompt evaluation is important.
Certain risk factors can increase the chances of developing a blood cancer:
- Age: Risk increases as you get older. The median age at diagnosis is around 67.
- Chemicals: Exposure to certain chemicals like benzene or radiation can raise the risk.
- Genetics: Some blood cancers are more common in certain ethnic groups. Family history can also play a role.
- Infections: Being exposed to certain viruses may contribute to some blood cancers. For example, the Epstein-Barr virus is associated with certain lymphomas.
- Autoimmune diseases: Having an autoimmune disease like rheumatoid arthritis appears to increase blood cancer risk somewhat.
- Obesity: Being obese or overweight increases the risk of multiple myeloma.
- Smoking: Cigarette smoking can contribute to conditions like acute myeloid leukemia (AML).
Many of these risk factors are unavoidable. But limiting exposures within your control may help reduce your risk.
Detecting blood cancers begins with a medical history, physical exam, and description of symptoms. However, many tests are needed to confirm a diagnosis:
- Blood tests: Complete blood count (CBC) to evaluate blood cell levels. Other tests help analyze proteins, enzymes, etc.
- Bone marrow biopsy: Removing bone marrow samples for examination under a microscope. This helps classify blood cancers.
- Imaging tests: CT scans, PET scans, or MRI scans to see how far cancer may have spread.
- Lumbar puncture: Also called a spinal tap. Removal of spinal fluid to check for cancer cells.
- Lymph node biopsy: Removing an entire lymph node or part of a node to examine under a microscope. Helps diagnose lymphomas.
- Genetic testing: Testing for DNA changes or chromosome rearrangements in cancerous cells. This can guide treatment.
After these tests, your doctor can determine a specific diagnosis and develop an appropriate treatment plan. Catching blood cancers early greatly improves the chances of remission and long-term survival.
Treatment for blood cancers depends on the type, stage, and other factors. But common options may include:
Chemotherapy uses anti-cancer drugs to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy can be given as a pill or injected into the bloodstream. It kills cancer cells but also damages some normal cells, causing side effects. Multiple cycles are often needed.
Chemotherapy is a foundational treatment for many blood cancers. The drugs, dosages, and combinations depend on the individual cancer type and stage.
Stem Cell Transplant
A stem cell transplant gives you new, healthy stem cells after your diseased bone marrow stem cells have been destroyed by high-dose chemotherapy. First, stem cells are collected from either your blood or bone marrow. Later, after chemo, these stem cells are infused back into your blood to rebuild your bone marrow's ability to make normal blood cells.
There are two types: autologous transplant using your own stem cells, and allogeneic transplant using donor stem cells. Transplants carry risks but can potentially cure some blood cancers.
Radiation therapy uses high-energy beams like X-rays to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. This can be done externally by aiming radiation at the tumor. Or it can be done internally through brachytherapy by implanting radioactive seeds near the tumor site.
Radiation may be used to prepare for a transplant or to treat areas where cancer has spread, like the brain or spinal cord. Short-term side effects include skin irritation, fatigue, and low blood counts.
Targeted therapy uses medications that specifically attack cancer cells while causing minimal damage to normal cells. These drugs target genetic defects in cancer cells that enable them to grow and spread.
For example, imatinib (Gleevec) targets a specific enzyme and protein that contributes to chronic myeloid leukemia (CML). Targeted drugs often have less harsh side effects than traditional chemotherapy.
Immunotherapy uses your immune system to fight cancer. Some drugs boost your natural immune response against cancer cells. Others involve engineering immune cells in a lab to better identify and destroy cancer.
For instance, CAR T-cell therapy modifies your T-cells to better attack lymphoma and leukemia cells. Immune checkpoint inhibitors help T-cells stay active against cancer for longer.
There's no guaranteed way to prevent most blood cancers. However, you may be able to lower your risk by:
- Avoiding cigarette smoke and other tobacco products
- Limiting alcohol intake
- Maintaining a healthy body weight
- Protecting yourself from certain chemicals or radiation when possible
- Getting treated for any infections like HIV or hepatitis that increase blood cancer risk
- Seeing your doctor regularly for screenings and care
Blood cancer can't always be prevented - some people get it by chance. But limiting controllable risk factors offers some degree of protection.
Support and Outlook
Being diagnosed with blood cancer can feel overwhelming. Seeking support can help you navigate treatment, cope with side effects, and maintain hope.
- Join a support group to connect with others facing similar challenges. This provides a sense of community.
- Seek individual or family counseling to process emotions and strengthen relationships. This aids healthy coping.
- Learn about financial assistance programs that help cover treatment costs, transportation, and other needs. This reduces financial stress.
- Communicate openly with your care team - they want to help you through this journey toward wellness.
The outlook for many blood cancers has improved significantly in recent decades. New treatments offer more options with less harsh side effects. Therapy is also more personalized based on the specific genetic profile of your cancer.
While blood cancers remain challenging to face, keep in mind that remission and long-term survival are very possible with today's improved treatments. Don't lose hope!
: "Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma." American Cancer Society,
: “What Is Multiple Myeloma?” American Cancer Society, 11 Jan. 2022, https://www.cancer.org/cancer/multiple-myeloma/about/what-is-multiple-myeloma.html.
: “Myelodysplastic Syndromes (MDS).” American Cancer Society, 8 June 2022, https://www.cancer.org/cancer/myelodysplastic-syndrome.html.
: “What Causes Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma?” American Cancer Society, 16 June 2022,
: “What Causes Multiple Myeloma?” American Cancer Society, 11 Jan. 2022, https://www.cancer.org/cancer/multiple-myeloma/causes-risks-prevention/what-causes.html.
: “What is leukaemia?”,
: PDQ® Adult Treatment Editorial Board. PDQ Acute Myeloid Leukemia Treatment. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute, Updated: September 8, 2023
: “Stem Cell or Bone Marrow Transplant.” American Cancer Society, 1 Nov. 2021,
: “Radiation Therapy for Cancer.” Updated: January 8, 2019,
: Yan, Li et al. “Targeted cancer therapies.” Chinese Journal of Cancer vol. 30,1 (2011): 1-4. doi:10.5732/cjc.010.10553
: “How Immunotherapy Is Used to Treat Cancer.” American Cancer Society, 1 Apr. 2020,