Some blood samples

Understanding Blood Cancer

The three main types of blood cancer are leukemia, myeloma, and lymphoma. These cancers impair the function and production of the blood cells, resulting in frequent infections, anemia, and easy bruising. While leukemia and myeloma are found in the bone marrow, lymphoma starts in the lymphatic system, which includes lymph nodes, lymphatic vessels, tonsils, thymus, spleen, and digestive tract lymphoid tissue. Here is an overview of what you need to know about blood cancer.

Symptoms

The three types of blood cancer share common symptoms. It is, however, possible to not experience any symptoms if you have myeloma or a slow-growing type of leukemia. If symptoms are present, you may experience a loss of appetite, fatigue, bone and joint pain, bleeding and bruising, weakness,  itchy skin, and enlarged lymph nodes. 

Severe symptoms that require urgent medical care include uncontrolled bleeding, severe sweating, trouble breathing, blue lips or fingernails, high fever (greater than 101 degrees), fast heart rate, confusion, loss of consciousness, or anxiety.

Causes

The cause of blood cancer is not known. What is understood, however, is that they impair the bone marrow’s ability to produce normal blood cells: red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. The impairment of normal blood cell function causes a number of symptoms and compromises the immune system.

Risk Factors

The following factors increase your risk for developing blood cancer:

  • Chemical exposure: When exposed to toxic chemicals, these chemicals can get into your bloodstream and spread throughout your body. This includes tobacco smoke from smoking cigarettes.
  • Age: Older people have a greater risk of blood cancer.
  • Race: Caucasians are more likely to develop blood cancer.
  • Immune system weakness: If you have a weak immune system due to a condition like HIV/AIDS, a recent organ transplant, or for another reason, your chances for blood cancer increase. 

Diagnosis

Diagnostic testing for each type of blood cancer is the same and usually starts with blood tests. For example, you will normally be given a complete blood count (CBC) test. This test measures the amount of different types of blood cells in your body and detects any abnormalities. A bone marrow biopsy can also help confirm a diagnosis of blood cancer. Imaging tests such as an MRI, CT scan, or X-ray are sometimes done as well. 

Last Updated: May 26, 2016