Blood Cancers Aren't Like Other Cancers
- Your blood is in your whole body, so the blood cancer is, too.
- All blood cancers effect the white blood cells.
- Not all blood cancers require treatment.
"It's a blood disorder, and your blood is in your whole body, so the cancer is in your whole body," hematologist-oncologist Nicole Lamanna told SurvivorNet. But, just because it's in your blood doesn't necessarily mean it's severe. "We may need to treat you for it, or we may not."Read More
Blood Cancer: How It's Different From Other Cancers"Blood cancers in general effect the white blood cells, which help fight infection, keep our energy, or help with clotting to prevent you from bleeding," Lamanna says.
Most blood cancers start in your bone marrow. It's the spongy tissue inside some of your bones, where blood is made. Stem cells in the bone marrow develop into the three types of blood cells: red or white blood cells or platelets. But, blood cancer interrupts this process when one type of white blood cell a different one depending on the type of cancer grows out of control. These cancerous cells prevent your blood from doing its many jobs, including fighting infection and preventing uncontrolled bleeding.
"One cell got really selfish and decided that it needed to take up all the resources of everybody else," hematologist Nina Shah told SurvivorNet.
Types of Blood Cancers
Blood cancer refers to leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma. The major differences between the three lie in the types of white blood cells these cancers effect. There are several different subtypes of each of these cancers based on how fast the cancer is growing.
Leukemia develops when the body produces large quantities of abnormal white blood cells. Because they're abnormal, they prevent the bone marrow from producing any other type of cell, namely red blood cells and platelets.
In lymphoma, a specific type of white blood cell called a lymphocyte becomes abnormal and multiplies. They then accumulate in your lymph nodes filters that rid your body of harmful substances. Eventually, this type of cancer damages the immune system.
Myeloma is a cancer of the plasma cells. These are white blood cells that produce antibodies immune cells that fight diseases and infections. The plasma can't produce antibodies when you have myeloma, so the body is unable to fight infection.
Signs and Symptoms of Blood Cancer
Every blood cancer is different, but some of the signs and symptoms are the same, such as:
- Coughing or chest pain
- Fever or chills
- Frequent infections
- Itchy skin or rash
- Loss of appetite or nausea
- Night sweats
- Ongoing weakness and fatigue
- Shortness of breath
- Swollen, painless lymph nodes in the neck, armpits, or groin
How Doctors Diagnose Blood Cancers
Doctors can diagnose some, but not all blood cancers with a blood test.
If doctors suspect you have leukemia, a test called a complete blood count (CBC) can detect the abnormally high levels of white blood cells that go along with the disease. In fact, a CBC is the most common blood test and a part of routine blood work. That means a routine physically could lead your doctor to catching leukemia.
Lymphoma is a little different. Doctors need to take a biopsy a little bit of your tissue to examine. They might also need an X-ray or other types of images.
Doctors use a complete blood count, or other blood and urine tests, to diagnose myeloma, too. They might also need a biopsy and some type of scan, like an MRI.
Treatments for Blood Cancers
Some of the treatments for blood cancers are like the ones for solid tumors, such as chemotherapy and targeted therapies. But, unlike with solid tumors, stem cell transplant (also called bone marrow transplant) is a treatment for all three types of blood cancer, too.
Cancer and cancer treatment can damage the stem cells in your bone marrow. Remember, those are the cells that become blood cells. Stem cell transplant replaces those damaged cells with brand new ones.
If stem cell transplant is a part of your treatment plan, then before chemotherapy, your care providers may take some of your stem cells out and store them to use in the transplant later. (Or you may get stem cells from a donor.) After you complete chemotherapy, and your stem cells (and as a result, your immune system) have been wiped out, you will get new healthy stem cells put back in. It's basically like getting a brand new immune system.
But, not all blood cancers require this treatment or any treatment at all. With some types of leukemia, you can just keep an eye on the cancer.
"This is a very different cancer," says Lamanna. "Most of the time, if you're diagnosed with cancer, we're going to treat you. Leukemia happens to be one of those cancers that you don't necessarily need treatment right away. Many patients are monitored even for years."