Blood cancers affect the function and production of blood cells. Bone marrow, a material inside the bones, produces three kinds of blood cells: red and white cells and platelets.
“Mutations to blood cells can lead to blood cancer,” said Dr. Chady Leon, a Marshfield Clinic oncologist/hematologist. “The type of cancer depends on which type of cell has a mutation.”
Blood cancers include three main types: leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma.
Leukemia occurs when the bone marrow makes abnormal blood cells. The type of leukemia depends on which type of cell is abnormal. Adult leukemia includes four main types with many subtypes:
- Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL)
- Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)
- Acute myeloid leukemia (AML)
- Chronic myeloid leukemia (CML)
In acute leukemia, the disease spreads rapidly. “It is a medical emergency where the patient needs to be admitted to the hospital and started on chemotherapy in a day or two,” Leon said.
AML is the most common type of acute leukemia in adults. ALL is the most common acute leukemia in children.
Chronic leukemia develops slowly. Some subtypes can be monitored and controlled with medication like chronic illnesses. CLL is the most common type of chronic leukemia.
Lymphoma is a cancer that affects white blood cells called lymphocytes. It often begins in the lymph nodes, which are tissues that help your body fight infection. Lymphoma and leukemia sometimes overlap because some types of leukemia affect the lymph nodes.
Two forms of lymphomas are known: Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Hodgkin lymphoma spreads to nearby lymph nodes in a step-wise fashion, Leon said. In non-Hodgkin lymphoma, the abnormal white blood cells can affect lymph nodes in any other part of the body.
Each main type of lymphoma has several subtypes that are treated differently.
Myeloma is cancer of the plasma cells, which are white blood cells that release disease-fighting antibodies.
Multiple myeloma is the most common type of plasma cell cancer. The abnormal plasma cells can form tumors, weaken bones and cause bone pain.
“Multiple myeloma is still incurable, but it has become very treatable in the past 15 years,” Leon said. “Now we can control it for a number of years.”
Treatments for blood cancers
Chemotherapy and radiation are used to treat blood cancers, along with other methods.
Stem cell transplants treat blood cancers by introducing healthy blood-forming cells into the body. The healthy cells can replace cancer cells that were destroyed by chemotherapy or find and kill cancer cells.
Targeted therapies that selectively kill only cancer cells, and immunotherapy, which involves boosting the body’s natural defense system, also are used to treat blood cancers.
Comparison to solid cancers
Blood cancers cause non-specific symptoms, including:
- Fever and chills
- Loss of appetite
- Unexplained weight loss
- Night sweats
- Frequent infections
- Swollen lymph nodes
Solid cancers also can cause these symptoms as well as specific symptoms, such as blood in the stool for colon cancer or a breast lump for breast cancer.
Blood cancers don’t have a standard staging system like solid cancers. Instead, staging varies based on disease type. Blood abnormalities, chromosome mutations and how the cancer is affecting production of other blood cells factor into staging.