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What are the early warning signs of blood cancer?

Blood cancers account for about 10% of all cancer cases in the UK. But although a large number of patients are diagnosed each year, there is still a general lack of understanding of the warning symptoms of the disease.

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What is blood cancer?

Over 30,000 people will be diagnosed with a blood cancer in the UK this year. You've likely heard of the most common forms: leukaemia, myeloma and lymphoma.

Leukaemia and myeloma happen when there are too many abnormal cells in the blood and bone marrow (where blood cells are made). It means not enough normal blood cells are produced, which can cause anaemia, infections and bruising or bleeding.

Lymphoma patients typically have increased numbers of cells in the lymph glands, causing them to be enlarged. Other organs can, however, be affected in all of these diseases.

Here, Dr Adrian Bloor from The Christie Private Care clinic in Manchester, part of HCA Healthcare UK, reveals some of the most common symptoms of blood cancer, which, if spotted early, could lead to a life-saving early diagnosis of the disease.

Extreme tiredness

Most of us feel absolutely knackered from time to time, but exhaustion that's unusual or persistent is something to seek medical advice about.

"The stresses and strains of modern day life leave many of us feeling in constant need of a rest. However, if you experience persistent fatigue - both in the form of tiredness and breathlessness (even when seated or resting) - then my advice would be to go to see a doctor as soon as possible. Whilst in many cases, fatigue will not be linked to a more serious condition, it can also be an indicator of anaemia which is a primary symptom of blood cancer," says Bloor.

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Lumps and swelling

If your glands are up, it's likely nothing to worry about. It's usually just a sign that your body is doing its job and fighting off infections. However, they usually go down on their own within a couple of weeks. Persistent unexplained lymph node enlargement can be an indication that abnormal white blood cells are building up in the lymph glands, points out Bloor.

"Swollen lymph nodes due to lymphoma are often painless; however, that doesn't mean they should be ignored. If you discover a new lump or swelling which does not go away after a few days, then the recommendation is to seek medical attention so that it can be thoroughly assessed. It could be an early indicator of blood cancer."

Bruising and bleeding

Bruise like a peach? Some people just do bruise more easily than others. And if you're on medication such as aspirin, steroids or blood thinners, this might well explain it. Ditto if your tendency to bruise has increased with age - as skin becomes thinner over time.

"But new onset of bruising, especially without any prior injury, bruising in unusual places (such as on your tummy), or unexplained bleeding (for example, nosebleeds, bleeding from your gums or unusually heavy periods), could indicate a low platelet level which can be associated with blood cancer. Low platelet levels can also lead to tiny pinprick bruises, especially on your lower legs. These symptoms can be associated with all forms of blood cancer, but are most often linked to leukaemia," Bloor reveals.

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Unexplained weight loss

Losing weight without really trying to may sound like a stroke of luck, but conversely, it could be a red flag.

Bloor says: "Losing weight as a consequence of dieting is expected. However, if an individual experiences significant, unexplained weight loss without actively trying to do this, then this could be a cause for concern and needs to be investigated further. Unexplained weight loss has many causes, although it can be a sign of underlying disease, including blood cancer, and should be investigated."

Recurring infections

You shouldn't feel like you're always sick. See your GP if you seem to be getting every bug going.

Bloor says: "Minor Infections such as coughs and colds are common, especially in the winter months. Patients with blood cancers often have a weak immune system as a consequence of the disease, which predisposes to infections. Therefore, if you develop persistent or recurring infection then it would be advisable to speak to your doctor to get this investigated."

Night sweats

Are you waking up on soaked sheets? If this is a regular occurrence (and it can't be explained by the weather or an overzealous boiler), it's worth investigating.

Bloor says: "Occasional night sweats are not that uncommon and often not of great significance. Sometimes they occur as a result of hot weather, infection, changes to diet or alcohol intake, menopause or anxiety. Night sweats can, however, also be a symptom of lymphoma and may be very severe to the point where you would want to change your bedclothes or the sheets. If you suffer from new onset of night sweats without any obvious cause, especially if they are recurrent or drenching, you should speak to your doctor."

Aches and pains

Sadly, experiencing more aches and pains than you used to is actually a normal part of ageing. But they could also be a symptom of blood cancers such as leukaemia or myeloma, especially if they are persistent or severe.

Bloor adds: "Don't ignore persistent pain in your bones or elsewhere; I would recommend seeking medical attention to ensure there is no cause for concern."

Article History

The information on this page is written and peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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