Understanding the facts of blood cancers
“I felt like I had the flu,” a woman named Maria wrote on the Blood-cancer.org forum. “Just the aches and pains part of the flu. There was no fever or runny nose, or coughing. I began to get infections and unexplained bruising. I was tired all the time. My doctor listened and promised me we would do tests until either the symptoms subsided or a diagnosis was found.”
The diagnosis was found. Maria has leukemia, one of the three types of blood cancer, including lymphoma and myeloma. Most blood cancers start in the bone marrow, where blood is produced.
“Stem cells in your bone marrow mature and develop into three types of blood cells: red blood cells, white blood cells, or platelets,” Hematology.org explains. “In most blood cancers, the normal blood cell development process is interrupted by uncontrolled growth of an abnormal type of blood cell. These abnormal blood cells, or cancerous cells, prevent your blood from performing many of its functions, like fighting off infections or preventing serious bleeding.”
The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society says that every three minutes, one person in the United States is diagnosed with leukemia, lymphoma, or myeloma. Blood cancers make up around ten percent of new cancer diagnoses.
Leukemia is the most common blood cancer in the U.S. and the most common among children and teenagers. Found in the blood and bone marrow, it’s caused by the rapid production of abnormal white blood cells that impair the ability of the bone marrow to produce red blood cells and platelets.
Lymphoma affects the lymphatic system, which removes excess fluids from your body and produces immune cells. “Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cell that fight infection. Abnormal lymphocytes become lymphoma cells, which multiply and collect in your lymph nodes and other tissues,” Hematology.org explains.
“Myeloma is a cancer of the plasma cells. Plasma cells are white blood cells that produce disease- and infection-fighting antibodies in your body. Myeloma cells prevent the normal production of antibodies, leaving your body’s immune system weakened and susceptible to infection,” they say.
One thing to note is that although researchers know that blood cancer occurs when blood cell DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid, the organic chemical that contains information and instructions for protein synthesis, but you knew that) changes or mutates, they don’t know why.
“Your DNA tells cells what to do. In blood cancer, DNA tells blood cells when to grow, when to divide or multiply, and/or when to die. When DNA gives your cells new instructions, your body develops abnormal blood cells that grow and multiply faster than normal and sometimes live longer than normal. When that happens, normal blood cells become lost in an ever-growing horde of abnormal cells that crowd your normal cells and monopolize space in your bone marrow,” Cleveland Clinic says.
“Eventually, your bone marrow produces fewer normal cells. That means there aren’t enough normal cells available to do their essential tasks: carrying oxygen through your body, fighting infection, and controlling bleeding.”
Symptoms vary based on blood cancer type, but all three will often include feeling fatigued. This is feeling so tired or weak that you can’t perform daily tasks. In addition, you might experience a persistent fever caused by your body trying to fight infection or responding to abnormal blood cells.
“Drenching night sweats that come on suddenly while you’re sleeping, disturbing your sleep and drenching your bedding and clothes,” is another symptom as is unusual bleeding or bruising.
“Everyone has bumps, bruises, and injuries that make us bleed. Unusual bleeding or bruising is bleeding that doesn’t stop and bruises that don’t heal after two weeks,” Cleveland says.
You may also experience unexpected or unexplained weight loss. We’re talking about losing ten pounds or more over six to twelve months without changing your lifestyle.
Frequent infections may be a sign that something is affecting your immune system. Swollen lymph nodes or an enlarged liver or spleen may be signs of leukemia or lymphoma. And finally, myeloma and leukemia can cause bone pain or tender spots on your bones.
Just because you have similar symptoms doesn’t mean you have blood cancer. But you should contact your healthcare provider anytime you notice changes in your body that last more than a few weeks.
Kathy Hubbard is a member of the Bonner General Health Foundation Advisory Council. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.