September is Blood Cancer Awareness Month. Blood cancers affect the production and function of blood cells, of which there are three types. White blood cells are part of the immune system. They help fight infection and disease. Red blood cells transport oxygen from the lungs to the organs and tissues. Platelets help form blood clots to control bleeding.
Most blood cells form from stem cells in the bone marrow, the soft, spongy tissue inside of bones. These cells normally mature into white blood cells, red blood cells or platelets. Hundreds of billions of new blood cells are produced in the bone marrow each day. As a result, the body is provided with a continuous supply of fresh, healthy cells.
With blood cancers, however, this natural blood cell production goes haywire, and abnormal blood cells develop and grow out of control. Excess abnormal cells eventually crowd out the healthy blood cells and prevent them from performing their important functions.
There are three main types of blood cancers: leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma. These cancers affect different types of white blood cells and act in different ways. Each year, these cancers account for approximately 10 percent of cancer diagnoses.
Leukemia involves the overproduction of abnormal white blood cells that — unlike healthy white cells — are unable to fight infection. With the proliferation of these leukemia cells, there’s insufficient room left in the marrow for the production of healthy white blood cells, platelets and red blood cells.
As a result, there aren’t enough red blood cells to provide oxygen to the body’s organs and tissues so they can function properly. There aren’t enough healthy white blood cells to help the body fight off infection, and there aren’t enough platelets to help blood clot.
Lymphoma starts in the infection-fighting cells of the immune system, called lymphocytes. These cells are found in many parts of the lymphatic system, which carries white blood cells throughout the body. The lymphatic system includes the lymph nodes, spleen, thymus gland and tonsils.
There are two main types of lymphoma: non-Hodgkin and Hodgkin, which involve different types of lymphocytes. Most non-Hodgkin lymphomas arise from B cells, a type of white blood cell that makes antibodies. Hodgkin lymphomas begin in special cells called Reed-Sternberg cells, which are abnormal white blood cells that typically contain more than one nucleus.
Myeloma, also called multiple myeloma, is a rare cancer of plasma cells, which, like B cells, are white blood cells that make antibodies. With myeloma, the marrow produces an abundance of abnormal plasma cells, called myeloma cells. These cells crowd out the other healthy cells in the marrow.
The abnormal plasma cells can accumulate in the body and cause health problems that may include weakened bones, anemia (a lack of red blood cells to carry oxygen to your body’s organs and tissues) and abnormal kidney function.
Each blood cancer has its own signs and symptoms. There are, however, some signs and symptoms that are common to the three cancers, including persistent fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, fever, shortness of breath, unexplained weight loss, loss of appetite, abdominal discomfort, bone or joint pain, frequent infections, and easy bruising or bleeding.
Diagnosis begins with a thorough history and physical exam. The doctor will likely order blood tests, such as a complete blood count (CBC), which provides details about white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets. The doctor may also order a blood cell examination to further check blood cells and look for other substances that may be signs of disease.
The doctor may recommend a bone marrow biopsy, also called a bone marrow aspiration, to look for abnormal cells.
There are specific courses of treatment for leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma. In general, however, blood cancers are treated using chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Another treatment often recommended for blood cancer is stem cell transplantation, during which healthy stem cells replace damaged stem cells in the marrow.
With improvements in diagnosing and treating blood cancers, the survival rates have dramatically increased over the past few decades.
Improve the odds even more: If you notice any of the signs and symptoms of blood cancer, visit your doctor right away so you can catch leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma in their early, most treatable stages.