In 2010, Congress designated September as Blood Cancer Awareness Month, which coincides with Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. Blood cancer diseases are diagnosed in 14,000 Americans each month. Technological advances have led to earlier detection and earlier treatment schedules, which have quadrupled the overall five-year survival rate for leukemia over the past 60 years. Still, blood cancer is one of the most common cancers in children, accounting for 28 percent of all childhood cancer cases.
How Do Blood Cancers Form?
Cancer starts when cells, the building blocks of the body, form in unusual ways. Typically, the body creates new cells as they are needed, replacing the old ones that die off. But sometimes the process goes awry, and new cells grow when they are not needed, while old cells do not die as they should. The extra cells form a mass that becomes a tumor. Blood cancers cause uncontrolled growth of unhealthy cells in the bone marrow, which is where blood cells are made.
What Are the Types of Blood Cancer?
It is estimated that more than 178,000 new cases of leukemia, lymphoma, and myeloma will be diagnosed in the United States this year. Nearly 57,000 people will lose their lives to these diseases.
There are several types of blood cancers, which include:
- Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL): In ALL, the body makes abnormal lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell that is part of the immune system. Abnormal lymphocytes do not fight infections well and quickly crowd out the bone marrow, preventing it from making healthy cells.
- Acute myeloid leukemia (AML): Also called acute myelogenous leukemia, in AML the body makes unhealthy blood-forming cells, or stem cells, that do not develop properly and prevent the body from fighting infections or stopping bleeding.
- Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL): CLL is a blood cancer in which the bone marrow makes too many abnormal white blood cells, preventing the body from fighting infections or stopping bleeding.
- Chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML): CML is caused by an abnormal chromosome, referred to as the Philadelphia chromosome, in bone marrow cells. This chromosome teaches the bone marrow to make too many white blood cells.
- Hodgkin lymphoma (HL): HL is a cancer of the lymphocytes, the white blood cells that protect the body from infection. They first show up in the lymph nodes, small, bean-shaped glands throughout the body, and then spread to other parts of the body.
- Multiple myeloma (MM): MM is a cancer of blood cells known as plasma cells, which help the body fight infections. Unhealthy plasma cells can weaken bones and damage kidneys.
- Myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS): MDS is a group of diseases that affect the blood and bone marrow. In MDS, stem cells slow down or even stop producing red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. People with MDS will have anemia, a low number of red blood cells, and may need transfusions. They may also have low numbers of white blood cells and platelets. Types of MDS range from mild and treatable to severe and life-threatening, forming into the fast-growing AML.
- Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL): This is a group of 30 types of blood cancers in which the body makes unhealthy lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell. The lymphocytes form tumors in the lymph nodes that enlarge the lymph nodes, notably in the neck, armpits, and groin, but also in the liver, spleen, and bone marrow. They range from slow-growing lymphomas, called indolent, to aggressive lymphomas, which grow quickly.
First Signs There May Be a Problem
There are several early blood cancer symptoms. They include:
- Fever and chills
- Persistent fatigue and weakness
- Loss of appetite and nausea
- Unexplained weight loss
- Night sweats
- Bone and joint pain
- Abdominal discomfort
- Shortness of breath
- Frequent infections
- Itchy skin or a skin rash
- Swollen lymph nodes in the neck, underarms, or groin
These symptoms mimic those for other diseases, so see a doctor when these signs become evident.
Blood Cancer Treatment Options
Treatment for blood cancers will depend on the type of cancer, the age of the patient, how aggressive the cancer is, and if and where it has spread to.
Some common treatments include:
- Stem cell transplantation: This treatment option, also called bone marrow transplantation or hematopoietic progenitor cell transplantation, infuses healthy blood-forming stem cells into the body that originate from bone marrow, circulating blood, or umbilical cord blood.
- Chemotherapy: Anticancer drugs are used to stop the growth of cancer cells in the body. Chemotherapy is sometimes given before a bone marrow transplant.
- Radiation therapy: This therapy uses radiation to destroy cancer cells or to relieve pain and discomfort in enlarged lymph nodes, the liver, or the spleen; also may be given before a bone marrow transplant.
Many stem cell transplantation procedures use donor cells from adult donors, either related or unrelated to the patient, or cord blood that is stored for public use. Sometimes patients may be able to use their own blood, known as an autologous transplant.
In most cases (70 percent of the time), a fully matched donor is not easy to find in the donor’s own family, at which time the patient will turn to a registry to find a closer match. A donor must match the patient’s human leukocyte antigen (HLA) tissue type. The more common the tissue type of the donor, the more likely he or she will be able to help a recipient.
The National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP) covers all medical costs of donors. People wishing to help others by donating their bone marrow can get more information on joining the registry by contacting the NMDP at Be the Match.
For more information on blood cancers, see the:
- Leukemia & Lymphoma Society website and join a live chat, call 800-955-4572, or send an email
- Lymphoma Research Foundation website, call the Lymphoma Helpline at 800-500-9976, or send an email
- International Myeloma Foundation website or call the InfoLine at 800-452 CURE (2873)
Resources at Herrick Library
To learn more about blood cancer, check out these books and videos from Herrick Library:
- Childhood Leukemia: A Guide for Families, Friends & Caregivers, by Nancy Keene: Find information and support on childhood leukemia, a disease that produces 3,300 new diagnoses each year in America.
- The Express (rated PG): This movie is based on the true story of Syracuse University football standout, Ernie Davis, who became the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy before his career is cut short by leukemia at the age of 23.
- Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (rated PG-13, review to come later in the week): This deeply moving, unique, and irreverent film is about true friendship between two teenage boys and a fellow female student who was just diagnosed with leukemia.
- Survival Lessons, by Alice Hoffman: The best-selling author of Practical Magic shares her 15-year journey through cancer survival, including the wisdom she gained and her newfound appreciation for life. This audiobook can be checked out via OverDrive.
- Understanding Myeloma, by Christina Gasparetto: This book is a comprehensive overview of myeloma symptoms, diagnosis, treatment options, and where to find supportive care.
- When Blood Breaks Down: Life Lessons from Leukemia, by Mikkael Sekeres: In this new book, a leading cancer specialist tells the compelling stories of three adult leukemia patients, plus what leukemia is and how it is treated.
Sources: bethematch.org, Blood Cancers and Diseases Treated by Transplant, https://bethematch.org/patients-and-families/about-transplant/blood-cancers-and-diseases-treated-by-transplant/; bethematch.org, How Bone Marrow Transplants Work, https://bethematch.org/transplant-basics/how-transplants-work/; Cancer Treatments Centers of America, Blood Cancers, https://www.cancercenter.com/blood-cancers; MedlinePlus, Cancer, https://medlineplus.gov/cancer.html; National Foundation for Cancer Research, Blood Cancers, https://www.nfcr.org/cancer-types/blood-cancer;
Graphics: Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, https://www.lls.org/ ; National Foundation for Cancer Research, https://www.nfcr.org/blog/september-blood-cancer-awareness/