Every 14 minutes someone in the UK is diagnosed with blood cancer yet many of us are unaware of this disease and its different varieties, its symptoms, how it’s diagnosed or if it is treatable. Here health writer Rosalind Ryan shares the facts about the disease.
Most of us have heard of breast, prostate, lung and bowel cancer. However, blood cancer is much less well known, despite being the fifth most common cancer in the UK – and the third biggest cancer killer, according to Bloodwise. More than 250,000 people are currently living with the disease and there are 40,000 new diagnoses every year.
But what exactly is blood cancer? And what are its causes, symptoms and treatments?
What is blood cancer?
The phrase “blood cancer” actually describes a group of cancers that affect the blood, bone marrow or lymphatic system. There are three main types of blood cancer: leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma. But within each of these, there many different versions depending on the specific blood cells affected and the speed at which the cancer develops. There are also other blood conditions, such as myelofibrosis, that are closely related to blood cancer but fall under different categories.
Despite these different varieties, all blood cancers originate in the same way. “All blood cancers are to do with a problem with how blood cells develop,” explains Abi Howse, health information manager at Bloodwise, the UK’s leading blood cancer research charity.
“The blood cells either don’t develop into fully-grown blood cells, so they can’t do their job properly, or they over-multiply and overwhelm healthy blood cells. This stops the healthy cells doing their job properly.”
What causes blood cancer?
The simple answer is that blood cancer is caused by changes in our DNA, but scientists still don’t know exactly what triggers those changes. There are some risk factors that make blood cancers more likely, such as:
- age – they’re more common in older people
- gender – men are more likely to develop them
- ethnicity – some blood cancers are more common in certain groups
Environmental factors such as large amounts of radiation or chemical exposure are also linked to some types of blood cancer.
What are the symptoms?
While the symptoms vary with each type of the disease, there are some common signs including:
- extreme fatigue or tiredness
- severe night sweats
- more frequent or more severe infections
- bruising more easily, with no clear cause
- bone or joint pain, or backache
- unexplained weight loss
- itchy skin
- unusual lumps or swellings
As many of these symptoms can be caused by other conditions, blood cancer can be difficult to detect. This is unfortunate because early diagnosis has a real impact on treatment success rates.
Tests used in diagnosis vary according to the type of blood cancer suspected but often include:
- blood tests
- bone marrow biopsies
- scans to check for swollen lymph nodes in the neck, groin or armpit
- scans to check for any lumps or thinning in the bones
How is it treated?
Different types of blood cancer are treated in different ways but there are some commonalities. “A lot of blood cancers are treated with chemotherapy, while stem cell transplants are important for others.” says Howse.
Stem cells can become any type of cell, including blood cells. With stem cell transplants, patients receive a higher dose of chemotherapy to destroy the harmful stem cells in their bone marrow before being given a dose of either healthy cells from a stem cell donor or their own cells that have been treated.
“We’re moving towards more targeted therapies, too,” says Howse. “These are drugs that are able to find and target the cancerous cells because they’re attracted to a certain protein on the surface. This means they don’t attack healthy cells, which can avoid the side-effects seen with chemotherapy.”
Immunotherapy is also being used more often. This is any treatment that harnesses or “piggybacks” on to the immune system in some way. “The drug will either help the immune system to fight off the cancer itself, or piggybacks on the immune cells to be delivered directly to the cancerous cells,” explains Howse.
Is blood cancer curable?
Success in curing blood cancer depends on its type.
“Some people may have low-grade or slow-growing blood cancers,’ says Howse. “Their therapy is known as ‘watch and wait’ – their blood cells may be abnormal, but the cancer is not seriously impacting their quality of life. This treatment could last 10 years.”
There’s also a type of leukaemia where patients take medication every day. “It’s a long-term condition that they learn to live with,” says Howse. “So, it’s not curable but it is manageable.”
Other blood cancers, such as myeloma, go through cycles of remission and relapse – but the periods of remission can last for several years.
“We like to think in terms of survival rather than whether a cancer can be cured,” states Howse. “For example, the survival rate for all forms of leukaemia has jumped from 7% in the 1970s to 46% today, while 80% of people with Hodgkin lymphoma survive for 10 years or more after diagnosis.”
Find out more – and join the fight
Download the new pocket guide from Bloodwise to find out more information about blood cancer, including questions to ask your GP if you’re concerned that you might be showing symptoms.
You can also help tackle blood cancer by becoming a stem cell donor in a process that is similar to giving blood.
“Over 2,000 people in the UK need a bone marrow or stem cell transplant every year, but 75% of them won’t find a match within their own family,” says Alex Cupit, online recruitment lead for Anthony Nolan, the blood cancer charity that organises the stem cell register. “But if you’re 16-30 and in good health, you could join the register today and help save lives.”