Blood and Lymph Cancers
There are three main types of blood cancers:
Leukemia – a type of cancer found in your blood and bone marrow caused by the rapid production of abnormal white blood cells. The high number of abnormal white blood cells are not able to fight infection, and they impair the ability of the bone marrow to produce red blood cells and platelets.
Lymphoma – a type of blood cancer that affects the lymphatic system, which removes excess fluids from your body and produces immune cells. Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cell that fight infection. Abnormal lymphocytes become lymphoma cells, which multiply and collect in your lymph nodes and other tissues. Over time these cancerous cells impair your immune system. Lymphoma is divided into two categories: Hodgkin lymphoma and Non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Myeloma – a type of blood cancer that specifically targets your plasma cells. Plasma cells are white blood cells that produce disease- and infection-fighting antibodies in your body. Myeloma cells prevent the normal production of antibodies, leaving your body’s immune system weakened and susceptible to infection.
Who is at Risk?
Risk factors between the three major types of blood cancers, which increase the chances that a person will get one of these blood cancers, are varied.
Leukemia – radiation, smoking, benzene, previous experience of chemotherapy, Down syndrome or certain other inherited diseases, myelodisplastic syndrome, human T-cell leukemia virus type I (HTLV-I), or a family history of leukemia.
Hodgkin Lymphoma – certain viruses including Epstein-Barr virus or HIV, a weakened immune system, age (15-35 yrs, or over 55 yrs),or a family history of Hodgkin lymphoma.
Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma – weakened immune system; age (over 60 yrs); or certain infections including Epstein-Barr virus, HIV, Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori), human T-cell leukemia/lymphoma virus type I (HRLV-I), or hepatitis C virus.
Myeloma – age (over 65 yrs), race (persons of African descent), being a man, personal history of monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS), family history of myeloma.
Signs and Symptoms
Leukemia – People with chronic leukemia may not have symptoms. The doctor may find the disease during a routine blood test. People with acute leukemia usually go to their doctor because they feel sick. If the brain is affected, they may have headaches, vomiting, confusion, loss of muscle control, or seizures. Other symptoms of chronic or acute leukemia may include:
- Swollen lymph nodes that usually don’t hurt (especially lymph nodes in the neck or armpits)
- Fevers or night sweats
- Frequent infections
- Feeling weak or tired
- Bleeding and bruising easily
- Swelling or discomfort in the abdomen (from swollen spleen or liver)
- Weight loss for no known reason
- Pain in the bones or joins
Lymphoma – certain symptoms are not specific to lymphoma and are, in fact, similar to those of many other illnesses. People often go first to their doctor because they think they have a cold, the flu or some other respiratory infection that does not go away. Common symptoms include:
- Swelling of lymph nodes, which may or may not be painless
- Unexplained weight loss
- Sweating (often at night)
- Lack of energy
Myeloma – common symptoms include:
- Bone pain, usually in the back and ribs
- Broken bones, usually in the spine
- Feeling weak and very tired
- Feeling very thirsty
- Frequent infections and fevers
- Weight loss
- Nausea or constipation
- Frequent urination
Most often, these symptoms are not due to cancer. Other health problems may also cause these symptoms. Only a doctor can tell for sure. Anyone with these symptoms, especially if they are persistent, should tell the doctor so that problems can be diagnosed and treated as early as possible.
Diagnostic tests for all types of blood cancers may include: physical exam to check for swollen lymph nodes, blood tests (including complete blood count, LDH, immunoglobulin, calcium, and creatinine), biopsy of bone marrow or lymph nodes, spinal tap, chest x-ray, or cytogenetics (examination of chromosomes from a blood sample) in some cases.
Leukemia – treatment for leukemia includes: watchful waiting (in cases of chronic leukemia), chemotherapy, targeted therapy (drugs that block the growth of leukemia cells), biological therapy, radiation therapy, stem cell transplant,
Hodgkin Lymphoma – some form of radiation therapy, or a combination of the two is typically used to treat Hodgkin Lymphoma. Bone marrow or stem cell transplantation may also sometimes be done under special circumstances. Most patients with Hodgkin lymphoma live long and healthy lives following successful treatment.
Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma – many people treated for non-Hodgkin lymphoma will receive some form of chemotherapy, radiation therapy, biologic therapy or a combination of these. Bone marrow or stem cell transplantation may sometimes be used. Surgery may be used under special circumstances, but primarily to obtain a biopsy for diagnostic purposes. Although “indolent” forms of non-Hodgkin lymphoma are not currently curable, the prognosis is still very good. Patients may live for 20 years or more following an initial diagnosis. In certain patients with an indolent form of the disease, treatment may not be necessary until there are signs progression. Response to treatment can also change over time. Treatment that worked initially may be ineffective the next time, making it necessary to always keep abreast of the latest information on new or experimental treatment conditions.
Myeloma – treatment for myeloma includes: watchful waiting (for very early or pre-cancerous stages), induction therapy (a simultaneous combination of therapies such as chemotherapy, targeted therapy, and steroids), and stem cell transplant.
A wide range of therapies, including new and experimental treatments, exist for patients with blood cancers. Visit our links page for more detailed information on this wide-ranging category of cancers.