Blood cancers are a collection of cancers that affect the cells that make up our blood. Different types of cells are affected depending on the type of blood cancer. Currently, there aren’t any routine screenings for blood cancers in the United States. However, early detection is crucial and understanding common blood cancer symptoms can help.
Here, we’ll outline the main symptoms of blood cancers, as well as causes, risk factors, tests that can be carried out, and different treatment options available.
Blood cancers start in one of three places: circulating blood, bone marrow, or the lymphatic system. Bone marrow is the spongy center of some of the biggest bones in our body and is where most of our blood cells are made.
Our blood is made up of four main types of cells — namely, red blood cells, white blood cells, plasma cells, and platelets:
The lymphatic system is a part of our immune system consisting of lymph vessels, organs, and nodes spread across the body. In addition to acting as a filter, the lymphatic system contains white blood cells that help protect us from infection and disease. Blood cancer symptoms are therefore dependent on where in the body is affected.
Blood cancers occur because of mutations in the DNA of blood cells that happen in a person’s lifetime. This means the DNA mutation has not been inherited (passed down) from previous generations and is a random mutation. There are risk factors that can make someone more susceptible to the mutations that cause blood cancer, which we’ll cover below.
Once the DNA in someone's blood cells has changed due to a mutation, the previously normal blood cells no longer behave normally. For example, they may grow uncontrollably.
Blood cancer symptoms vary depending on the type of blood cancer, where it started in the body, and if it has spread elsewhere. These are the most common symptoms of blood cancers:
Other less common blood cancer symptoms include:
Blood cancers start within circulating blood cells, bone marrow, or lymph nodes. As such, early symptoms will occur in these areas.
For example, abnormal bleeding and frequent infections can happen when the cells in the bone marrow are affected and a painful or full-feeling abdomen could be from cancerous cells that have spread and are building up in the liver or spleen. The first symptom of lymphomas is usually a painless swelling in a lymph node.
It’s very important to see a healthcare professional if you are persistently experiencing any of these symptoms (for two weeks or longer) to rule out blood cancers. Some of the symptoms listed are non-specific and could be due to other causes. However, this should not delay seeking medical advice.
Blood cancers are relatively rare forms of cancer and can affect both adults and children. There are several different types of blood cancers, which include:
There are also different types of leukemia and lymphoma within these categories, which we’ll detail below.
Leukemia is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow that mostly affects white blood cells. White blood cells (leukocytes) help protect us from infection. Leukemia occurs when abnormal white blood cells that aren’t fully formed grow uncontrollably and stop the normal white blood cells from being able to work properly. Leukemias are broadly categorized into acute (progresses quickly) and chronic (usually progresses slowly).
Within these two subtypes, depending on where the cancer starts, leukemias are most often classed as either myeloid or lymphoid. These are two different types of stem cells that go on to produce different types of blood cells.
The different types of leukemia are:
According to the American Cancer Society, the most common leukemias in children are ALL and AML — leukemia is the most common type of cancer in children overall. However, it’s important to note that cancers in general are rare in children. The most common types of leukemia in adults are AML and CLL.
With chronic leukemias (including CML and CLL), some people might not develop symptoms for years, and it can be found incidentally.
Lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system and affects white blood cells known as lymphocytes. These are found in the lymphatic system and normally help fight infections and remove abnormal cells (such as cancerous cells).
There are two main types of lymphoma — Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. In both types, the lymphocytes multiply abnormally and lose their ability to fight infections and other cells.
It’s important to get an accurate diagnosis of either Hodgkin or Non-Hodgkin lymphoma as the treatment may differ. This is done by looking at the cells that are taken in a sample from someone with suspected lymphoma. If Reed-Sternberg cells are found, the diagnosis will be Hodgkin lymphoma; if Reed-Sternberg cells are not seen, the diagnosis will be non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
The National Cancer Institute estimates that non-Hodgkin lymphoma accounts for 4.1% of all cancers and Hodgkin lymphoma accounts for 0.5% of all cancers in the United States. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma can occur at any age but the chances increase with age. Hodgkin lymphoma is most common between the ages of 20-40 or over 75.
The other main type of blood cancer is multiple myeloma, which affects the plasma cells in the bone marrow. This type of cancer is called multiple myeloma as it usually affects more than one area of bone in the body, such as the spine, ribs, skull, and pelvis. Multiple myeloma accounts for 1.8% of all new U.S. cancer cases and is most common in people over 60.
Risk factors for developing blood cancer depend on the type of blood cancer and can include:
Many risk factors are related to genetics, age, and medical conditions, and all of these vary depending on the type of blood cancer. However, some lifestyle behaviors can reduce the risk of developing blood cancer.
Use the Ezra risk factor tool to learn more about your risk for different types of cancer.
The tests used to diagnose blood cancers depend on which type of blood cancer is being investigated. These include:
Treatment options vary depending on the blood cancer type and the subtypes within each type of blood cancer.
Treatments may include:
Different treatments can cause side effects and an oncologist (cancer specialist) will go through these. There may also be clinical trials available to join if this is something the person would consider; this can be spoken about with a healthcare practitioner.
The length of treatment and prognosis depends on the type of blood cancer, whether it has spread and the characteristics of the person who has blood cancer. Some types of blood cancer need rapid treatment, such as ALL. Other blood cancers, such as CLL and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, may not require immediate treatment as they are slower to progress and there may not be many symptoms to start with.
Research is ongoing to keep improving the treatment of blood cancers. In the last 40 years, the successful treatment rate for children with ALL has improved significantly.
The 5-year survival rate for those under 15 with ALL went from 60% to 90% and for 15-19 year olds this went from 28% to over 75%. A 5-year survival rate refers to those still living at least 5 years after diagnosis based on statistics. However, a person may be given a prognosis more tailored to their individual situation.
If the treatment is successful and there are no signs of any cancer remaining, a person is said to be in remission.
Early detection and treatment of blood cancers is vital to give the best chance of successful treatment. While you can’t control some of the risk factors for blood cancer, there are lifestyle decisions, such as not smoking, that you can take to reduce your risk.
When you’re aware of blood cancer symptoms, you become empowered to seek prompt medical attention if you experience any of them. Although an MRI scan isn’t the main test used to pick up blood cancers, an Ezra Full Body Scan can be used as part of a holistic approach to your health and may help detect signs of cancer.