Blood Cancers

Authored by Dr Colin Tidy, 23 Nov 2017

Patient is a certified member of
The Information Standard

Reviewed by:
Dr John Cox, 23 Nov 2017

Blood cancers affect how your blood cells are made and function. Most of these cancers start in your bone marrow where blood is produced. The effects of the blood cancer will depend on the exact type of cancer and which blood cells are affected.

Blood cancers may affect the blood, bone marrow and lymphatic system. See the links for more information about blood, bone marrow and the lymphatic system.

The tests for blood cancers include blood tests, scans (including CT scan or MRI scan) and a bone marrow biopsy and aspiration.

The symptoms caused by blood cancers will vary but may include the effects of:

  • Accumulation of abnormal cells in different parts of the body - for example, lymph glands, liver, spleen or brain. This may cause swelling, pain and also loss of function of any affected organ.
  • Abnormal production and function of blood cells:
    • Red blood cells: this will cause anaemia, which may lead to severe tiredness, exhaustion and collapse.
    • White blood cells: this will reduce your ability to fight against infections so that even minor infections may cause severe problems.
    • Platelets: this will cause abnormal bleeding, including extensive bruising (often without any injury) or serious internal bleeding.

The treatments for blood cancers include surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy and stem cell transplants. The combination of treatment used will depend on many factors, particularly the type of blood cancer and how far advanced it has become.

There are three main types of blood cancers:

  • Leukaemia
  • Lymphoma
  • Myeloma

Leukaemia is a cancer of cells in the bone marrow (the cells which develop into blood cells). See the separate leaflet called Cancer for more general information about cancer.

With leukaemia, the cancerous cells in the bone marrow spill out into the bloodstream. There are several types of leukaemia. Most types arise from cells which normally develop into white blood cells. If you develop leukaemia it is important to know exactly what type it is. This is because the outlook (prognosis) and treatments vary for the different types. Before discussing the different types of leukaemia it may help to know some basics about normal blood cells and how they are made. See the separate leaflet called Leukaemia.

A lymphoma is a cancer of cells in the lymphatic system. Lymphomas are divided into two types:

There are different types of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. It is important to know exactly what type you have. This is because the treatments and outlook (prognosis) can vary for different types of lymphoma. See the separate leaflet called Immune System for more information about the lymphatic system.

Myeloma is a cancer that affects cells in the bone marrow, called plasma cells. As the cancerous plasma cells fill the bone marrow, you are not able to make enough normal blood cells. This can lead to anaemia, bleeding problems and infections. Other symptoms include bone pain, breaks (fractures) due to bone damage, and kidney damage. In many cases, treatment with chemotherapy and other treatments can control the disease, ease symptoms and prolong survival for a number of years. Read more about myeloma.

Further reading and references

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