Understanding the Three Main Types of Blood Cancer

What is Blood Cancer?

Thinking about how cancer forms, we know that our bodies are always making new cells. With the production of cells come mutations. Some mutations cause the cells in our body to multiply without a purpose. Blood cancer occurs when those mutations replicate at a large scale in the blood, producing an excess of cells.

In our blood, we have white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets. The white blood cells fight infections. Red blood cells take oxygen to our tissues and organs, while bringing carbon dioxide to our lungs. When we experience an injury, platelets help with blood clots.

"Blood-related cancers are between 10 to 20% of cancer cases," says David Eilender, MD, Hematology and Medical Oncologist at Karmanos Cancer Institute at McLaren Flint.

There Are Three Main Types of Blood Cancers

Leukemia

When someone has leukemia, their body is usually making more white blood cells, but these cells are not fighting infections as they should. There are two basic forms of leukemia.

"There are acute and chronic forms," explains Dr. Eilender. "The acute are often curable. The chronic forms of leukemia are less likely curable, but we do see patients live many years with this form "“ some needing treatments, and some not receiving treatment at all."

Lymphoma

Lymphoma, or the cancer of the lymph system, also has two main types: Hodgkin's and Non-Hodgkin's. These cancers start in lymphocytes. When someone has Hodgkin's, they usually have large lymphocyte cells in their lymph nodes. Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma starts in B or T cells.

"Non-Hodgkin's is more common than Hodgkin's," explains Dr. Eilender. "There are aggressive forms of lymphoma and less aggressive. The aggressive tend to be more curable."

Myeloma

The last type of blood cancer is myeloma. Myeloma cancer is mainly in the bone marrow and can cause problems with bone blood counts. Eventually, that can lead to erosion of the bones, as well as fractures. Myeloma is often referred as multiple myeloma because it can be found in many parts of the bone marrow. Dr. Eilender says myeloma is usually not curable.

"Researchers are working to find a cure for myeloma," explains Dr. Eilender. "Some forms don't cause much pain for the patient and others can be more aggressive."

Is Blood Cancer Preventable?

The chances of developing a blood cancer is related to how your blood cells form. The disease forms when bad mutations occur, and these abnormal cells interfere with the function of normal blood cells. It is normal for cells to proliferate to make white blood cells that fight infection. When the infection is clear, those cells die.

"When you have cancer cells, you have a mutation where immature cells keep making more and more cells that don't mature," explains Dr. Eilender. "They don't serve a purpose and crowd out normal cells. But these mutations have to form a large enough cell number to cause a problem. Otherwise, the lesser numbers of mutated cells do not affect the good cells, they end up dying, or that small issue is corrected by repair mechanisms our body produces to fight off the bad cells."

Is Blood Cancer Genetic?

Unlike breast cancer, cases of blood cancer rarely run in the family.

"Sometimes, oncologists will see people with lymphomas that run in the family, or leukemias at times, but those are rare cases," says Dr. Eilender. "Most of the time, blood cancer tends to be sporadic."

Symptoms of Blood Cancer

Each individual's blood cancer type and the aggressiveness of the disease would indicate which symptoms they may experience. However, some cases may not present symptoms that many might associate with cancer. Some common symptoms are:

  • Constant fatigue and/or weakness
  • Nausea and/or loss of appetite
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Headaches
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fever and/or chills
  • Bone and joint pain

Treatment of blood cancers

Depending on each individual's cancer case, blood cancers are more commonly treated with chemical therapies, but can sometimes be combined with radiation therapy.

"Chemotherapy is usually the best treatment," says Dr. Eilender. "We'll sometimes use radiation for selected sites, but blood related cancers generally are systemic diseases. So, they're usually not in limited isolated areas. Radiation may not cure it most of the time, but it can be beneficial in treating a small area."

In some cases, patients may even benefit from a bone marrow, or more commonly used today, peripheral blood stem cell transplant. The two different stem cell transplants used are autologous and allogeneic.

"An autologous transplant uses your own bone marrow stem cells," explains Dr. Eilender. "Using the patient's own blood cells can avoid some side effects, but this may not be the best option for every patient's case."

Some patients may need an allogeneic bone marrow transplant, where a donor's stem cells are used to attack the cancerous cells.

Is Blood Cancer Curable?

In general, earlier treatment of cancer is more effective, but some blood cancers can be cured at any stage. This all depends on the type of disease. If the cancer is not curable the treatments could help relieve symptoms and improve survival. With the right timeframe in diagnosis and treatment, most people end up living longer than they would have expected to live in the past, or without treatment.

"Blood cancers can affect anyone "“ the disease doesn't discriminate, from the young to the old," Dr. Eilender points out. "Like most cancers, they tend to be more common as people get older, but we do see pediatric leukemia and forms of other blood cancers in the young."

Dr. Eilender has been practicing at Karmanos since 2007. He sees patients who are diagnosed with blood cancers. Dr. Eilender is also part of the Malignant Hematology Oncology Multidisciplinary Team at Karmanos.

Cancer is a tough disease, but at Karmanos Cancer Institute at McLaren Flint, we believe our patients are even tougher. Our comprehensive team of oncologists are determined to give you your best chance. For more information on cancer services, visit karmanos.org/flintcancer. To schedule a consultation or to get a second opinion, give us a call at (810) 342-3800.