Key Points about Blood Cancer
- There are more than 100 types of blood cancers.
- Some types of blood cancers more often affect adults, while others usually affect children.
- Doctors use imaging tests, biopsy, blood tests, urine tests and physical exams to diagnose blood cancer.
- Treatment for blood cancer may include surgery, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, immunotherapy, stem cell therapy and/or radiation therapy.
Blood cancer is cancer that develops in the bloodstream. These types of cancer account for roughly 10 percent of all cancer cases that are diagnosed.
The three main sub-types of blood cancer are:
- Leukemia – this type is cancer of white blood cells or the cells that become white blood cells. Leukemia is the most common blood cancer for people under age 15. When diagnosed in children, this is known as childhood leukemia.
- Lymphoma – this type of cancer affects the lymphatic system, specifically the lymph nodes (small organs that filter harmful substances from the blood). Lymphoma affects the type of white blood cell known as lymphocytes. Lymphoma is the most common type of blood cancer diagnosed in adults, comprising about 50 percent of all blood cancer cases.
- Myeloma – this type of cancer affects the plasma cells, a type of white blood cell that helps protect the body from infection. Therefore, having myeloma leaves a person’s body highly susceptible to infection.
Blood cancer causes
Blood cancer is caused when the body produces abnormal and excessive amounts of white blood cells.
Blood cancer risk factors
The following factors may increase your risk for developing blood cancer:
- Being a smoker
- Being male
- Having been exposed to certain harmful chemicals, such as benzene
- Having Epstein-Barr virus
- Having HIV (human immunodeficiency virus)
- Having undergone radiation therapy
Blood cancer symptoms
Signs and symptoms of blood cancer can include:
- Anemia (low iron levels in the blood)
- Extreme fatigue
- Night sweats
- Pain in your bones or joints
- Swelling of the lymph nodes
- Unintentional weight loss
Blood cancer diagnosis
Your oncologist may use one or more of the following tests to diagnose this condition:
- Physical exam – your doctor will perform a complete physical exam – including asking questions about your health history, your symptoms and related risk factors.
- Biopsy – in this test, your doctor removes a biopsy (small tissue sample) from the area of the suspected cancer. This sample is sent to the laboratory, where a specialist closely checks the biopsy for cancer.
- Blood tests – your doctor will send a sample of your blood to the laboratory for close analysis. The lab can determine if your white blood cells are abnormal, indicating that you have blood cancer.
- Computerized tomography (CT) scan – this type of imaging test provides a 3D image of the inside of the body that your doctor can use to determine the size and location of the suspected cancer. Your doctor can also use the CT scan to help determine if the cancer has spread beyond the initial site.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) – this type of imaging test uses high-powered magnets to create detailed images of the inside of your body. Your doctor can closely examine these images to determine the size and location of the suspected cancer. Your doctor can also use the MRI to help determine if the cancer has spread beyond the initial site.
- Urine test – your doctor will send a sample of your urine to the laboratory for close analysis. The lab can determine if your white blood cells are abnormal, indicating that you have blood cancer.
Blood cancer treatment
Depending on your personal health history, the extent of the blood cancer and other factors, your oncologist may recommend one or more of the following treatment options:
- Surgery – if your blood cancer is in the lymph nodes, you may need surgery to remove the affected lymph nodes.
- Chemotherapy – you may also need to undergo chemotherapy to destroy any cancerous cells that cannot be removed surgically. During this treatment, medication is used to destroy cancerous cells. Chemotherapy can be taken via an oral (by mouth) pill or intravenously (through a vein).
- Immunotherapy – this treatment uses your own immune system to destroy the cancerous cells.
- Radiation therapy – this treatment uses high-powered energy beams to destroy cancerous cells. You may need to undergo radiation therapy to destroy any cancerous cells that cannot be removed surgically.
- Stem cell transplant – this treatment involves infusing healthy stem cells into your blood to help your body destroy cancerous cells and resume healthy white blood cell production.
- Targeted therapy – in this treatment, specialized medications kill cancerous blood cells. Targeted therapy can help preserve more surrounding healthy tissue than other treatment options.
When should I seek care?
If you experience any of these symptoms, start by voicing your concerns and symptoms to your primary care provider. From there, your doctor may suggest seeing an oncologist for more specialized treatment.