Blood Cancer

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Introduction

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.

Seek prompt medical care if you have experienced unexpected weight loss, persistent fever, frequent infections, night sweats, tiredness, bone pain, or enlarged lymph nodes.

Symptoms

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:

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

  • Change in mental status or sudden behavior change, such as confusion, delirium, lethargy, hallucinations and delusions

  • Chest pain, chest tightness, chest pressure, palpitations

  • High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)

  • Rapid heart rate (tachycardia)

  • Respiratory or breathing problems, such as shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, labored breathing, wheezing

  • Seizure

  • Severe abdominal pain

  • Uncontrolled or heavy bleeding

Causes

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.

What are the risk factors for blood cancer?

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:

  • Advanced age

  • 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

  • HIV/AIDS

  • Solid organ transplant recipient

  • Personal history of certain blood disorders

  • Personal history of certain genetic disorders (Down syndrome)

  • Smoking

Treatments

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

Complementary treatments

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:

  • Acupuncture

  • Massage therapy

  • Nutritional dietary supplements, herbal remedies, tea beverages, and similar products

  • Yoga

Hospice care

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.

What are the potential complications of blood cancer?

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)

  • Broken bones

  • 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)

  • Kidney failure

  • Peripheral neuropathy (disorder that causes dysfunction of nerves that lie outside your brain and spinal cord)

  • Recurrence of cancer after remission

  • Spread of cancer

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Jan 5
  1. Leukemia. The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. http://www.lls.org/#/diseaseinformation/leukemia/
  2. Lymphoma. The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. http://www.lls.org/diseaseinformation/lymphoma/
  3. Pizzo PA, Poplack DG (Eds), Principles and Practice of Pediatric Oncology. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2011.
  4. Bope ET, Kellerman RD (Eds.) Conn’s Current Therapy. Philadelphia: Saunders, 2013.
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