Every three minutes, someone in the USA is diagnosed with a form of blood cancer. It is one of the more common cancers, accounting for around 10% of new cancer diagnoses every year, and is the most common cancer in children, accounting for approximately 30% of childhood cancers. Every nine minutes, someone dies from the disease. With these cancers continuing to affect the lives of so many people, it is vital that we understand the condition and what we can do to improve our chances of beating it. Hopefully, this article will give you an insight into blood cancer, what causes it and how it can be treated.
What is blood cancer?
Blood cancer is an umbrella term used to describe the many different forms of cancers which affect the blood, bone marrow or lymphatic system. They affect the production and function of the blood cells. Cells are the tiny building blocks that our bodies are made of. Every moment of every day your body is refreshing your cells by making new ones and destroying old ones. Stem cells in the bone marrow mature and develop into three types of blood cells: red blood cells, white blood cells, or platelets. In the majority of blood cancers, the normal blood cell development process is disrupted by uncontrolled growth of an abnormal blood cell type. These abnormal blood cells are the cancerous cells and prevent the blood from performing many of its vital functions, such as fighting off infections or stopping severe bleeding.
There are three main types of blood cancer:
Leukemia: This is a type of cancer found in the blood and the bone marrow and is caused by the quick production of abnormal white blood cells. Because of this, the body is unable to fight off infections, and the ability of the bone marrow to produce platelets and red blood cells is severely impaired. There are two different types of leukemia: chronic and acute. Chronic leukemia is where some cells are unaffected, so function normally alongside the damaged ones. This means that while the cancer will develop and spread, it will be a slower process. Acute leukemia is where almost all of the cells are affected and cannot function properly, so the patient will get very ill very quickly without treatment.
Lymphoma: This is a type of blood cancer that affects the lymphatic system. This system removes excess fluids from the body and produces immune cells. Lymphocytes are a form of white blood cell that fights infection. Abnormal lymphocytes become lymphoma cells, which multiply in the lymph nodes and other tissues. Over time, these cancerous cells will impair the immune system.
Myeloma: This is a cancer of the plasma cells. Plasma cells are the white blood cells that produce the antibodies that fight disease and infection in the body. Myeloma cells stop the normal production of antibodies, leaving your body’s immune system weakened and more susceptible to infection.
What are the symptoms of blood cancer?
Unfortunately, as yet, there are no routine screening tests for the early detection of blood cancers. People generally do not realize they have the disease until they begin to experience symptoms. Some early warning signs include:
- Feeling tired and sluggish
- Loss of appetite and nausea
- Weight loss that cannot be explained
- Night sweats
- Bone and joint pain
- Abdominal pain and discomfort
- Shortness of breath
- Frequent infections
- Swollen lymph nodes in the neck, under the arms or in the groin.
How is blood cancer treated?
Like other forms of cancer, there are a variety of ways to treat blood-based cancers. Each treatment will come with its own benefits, risks, and side effects. It depends on the rate of growth and spread of the cancer – some people are able to manage the disease by taking daily medication, while others need more intensive treatment.
Intensive forms of treatment include:
Chemotherapy: This uses powerful drugs to kill the cancerous cells within the body and stops them from further multiplying. They also damage healthy cells, but generally, the healthy cells repair themselves afterward, whereas cancerous ones cannot.
Stem Cell Treatment: This involves having a high dose of chemotherapy to kill the abnormal cells in the bone marrow and/or lymph nodes, before receiving new blood stem cells, either from the patient or a donor, through a drip. The aim of this is to encourage new healthy cell growth.
Biological therapy: This is a form of targeted treatment and will target the specific genes or proteins to stop the cancer from growing and spreading. This is often used alongside chemotherapy.
Radiotherapy: This type of treatment uses high energy rays to kill cancer cells in a specific area. It is most commonly used to fight lymphoma.
Surgery: This is rarely offered, but in the case of lymphoma, some patients may be given a splenectomy, which is when the spleen is removed. The spleen is the organ that filters the blood and helps to guard against infection.
How can blood cancers be prevented?
Unfortunately, there is no way of preventing any of the types of blood cancer, but there may be things in the environment that can increase the risk of it developing, or triggering it if it has lain dormant within the body. Smokers are more prone to some forms of blood cancer than non-smokers due to the chemicals in the tobacco. Exposure to certain chemicals and high levels of radiation have also been linked to the disease. Family history is also a risk factor. For example, if an identical twin contracts the disease, there is a one in five chance that the other twin will have it within a year. The different forms of blood cancer all have their own risk factors. For example, it is known that myeloma only affects adults and is a lot more common in men and people from an African-Caribbean background. However, Hodgkin lymphoma usually develops in people aged 15-25 or those over 50, and people who already have issues with their immune system.