Cancers of the blood
Cancer is always a scary word - but there are more kinds of cancer than there are nations in the world. Just like different nations, cancers vary widely - some are often fatal, some have little or no impact on your lifespan or quality of life. And treatments for cancer are changing rapidly - the outlook has never been better.
There are three main types of cancer of the blood. Leukaemia is a cancer of cells from the bone marrow which normally develop into white blood cells. White blood cells are crucial for healthy life - they are a crucial part our immune systems, which help us fight off disease. The other major player in our immune system is the lymphatic system - a network of interconnected channels and glands. The 'swollen glands' you get with a nasty sore throat are lymph glands (also called nodes). This is where lymphoma develops. The final kind is myeloma - a cancer of another kind of white blood cells, the plasma cells, which produce antibodies to help you fight off infection. Here we look in a little more detail at how you can spot the signs and what you can expect.
To complicate matters further, there are four main kinds of leukaemia. Two are 'acute' - symptoms develop quickly and patients become ill within weeks without treatment. The other two are 'chronic' - symptoms develop slowly and take months or years to get worse, even without treatment. These chronic kinds are both more common as you get older.
Although leukaemia is a cancer of white blood cells, other blood cells are affected because the bone marrow is too busy making these abnormal cells to make red blood cells or platelets, which help your blood clot properly. That means symptoms include:
- Tiredness, breathlessness or dizziness due to anaemia
- Abnormal bleeding (such as bruising without an injury) because of low platelet levels
- Serious infections because the cancerous white blood cells don't work properly in fighting off infection.
Treatment depends on the type of cancer, but the outlook is much less bleak than you might imagine. Most childhood leukaemias can be cured, and treatments for chronic leukaemia can slow down progression for years.
Tablets like aspirin or warfarin can also make you more prone to bleeding. Do get abnormal bleeding checked out, but remember that less worrying causes than cancer are usually to blame.
The most common symptom of lymphoma is swollen lymph glands that don't disappear. They can also cause sweats (especially at night), tiredness, fevers, weight loss and all-over itching. There are two main types of lymphoma - about four in five sufferers have 'Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma' and one in five have ' Hodgkin's lymphoma'. Hodgkin's lymphoma can occur at any age, but there are peaks in the early 20s and in over-70s. Most people with Hodgkin's lymphoma can be completely cured with chemotherapy and sometimes radiotherapy too.
Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma most commonly affects people over 60, and about 10,000 people a year are diagnosed in the UK. The outlook and the treatments vary with how fast-progressing the lymphoma is. Fast-growing lymphomas can often be cured with chemotherapy. Slow-growing lymphomas are less likely to be cured but treatment can reduce your symptoms and they may not progress for years.
A few raised, tender glands in one part of your body are much more likely to be due to an infection than to lymphoma. If you have other symptoms or they don't settle, see your GP, but remember - most swollen glands are not caused by cancer.
Myeloma is quite uncommon, affecting about 4,000 people a year in the UK, almost all over 50. It often doesn't cause symptoms in the early stages and may be found 'by accident' with a routing blood test. The first symptom is often bone pain (most commonly in the ribs, low back or pelvis) made worse by movement. Broken bones, weakness or numbness in one part of the body, tiredness due to anaemia and abnormal clotting can occur too. Treatment may not be needed if you don't have symptoms, but you will need regular follow up.
Aching bones are a symptom of myeloma, but they're much more likely to be down to a less worrying cause.
With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.