Blood Cancer

Rate this article: 1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (18 votes, average: 4.67 out of 5)
By on

Blood cancer can be defined as an unregulated growth of blood cells that originate in the bone marrow. It is a generic term used on cancers that affect the blood, bone marrow and the lymphatic system. Blood cancers start in cells that originate in the bone marrow and these faulty cells experience an uncontrolled growth.

Blood cancer

To understand how blood cancer may occur, we would have to look at three important role players in blood cancer [1]. These are the bone marrow, blood and the lymphatic system.

Bone marrow

The bone marrow exists within the cavities of the bones. They are the spongy tissue that fills up the cavities. A majority of blood cells are made in the bone marrow in a process referred to as hematopoiesis.

The three major types of blood cells that are made in the bone marrow are the red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. The red cells contain hemoglobin, which transports oxygen from the lungs to all parts of the body. The white blood cells are also known as leukocytes and fight infection whilst the platelets prevent the formation of clot.

All these cells have limited life spans and need to be reproduced on a continual basis. Existing within the bone marrow are the stem cells. Although they are small in number, they are capable of, when stirred, producing required amount of red and white blood cells and platelets.

The stem cells are in two major families. The myeloid stem cells develop the red blood cell, white blood cells and the platelets. The Lymphoid stem cells develop the specialized types o white blood cells including the T-cells and B-cells.


Blood is made up of blood cells and plasma. Plasma is the liquid that blood cells use to travel around the body. This straw colored fluid has various proteins and chemicals that are of importance to your body

The Lymphatic System

This system is composed of a large and intricate network of vessels that reach out towards all of the body’s tissues. These vessels are known as the lymph vessels. The lymphatic system has two main roles which are as follows

  • To drain excess fluid from the body’s tissues, filter the fluid and have it returned to the blood stream
  • To serve as a home for specialist white blood cells called lymphocytes to help in fighting infection. The two main types of lymphocytes are called B-cells and T-cells, which help in fighting infection whenever it arises.

Types of Blood Cancer

There are various kinds of blood cancer. However, the most common of these are leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma. In summary, these ailments mainly affect the blood stream, lymphatic system and bone marrow respectively.

1. Leukemia

Leukemia is a group of cancers that affect he blood and bone marrow. They start in the bone marrow where developing cells, usually developed white cells, undergo a cancerous change. Put differently, they multiply rapidly and in an unregulated way crowding the bone marrow and interfering with normal blood cell production. Eventually these abnormal leukemic cells leave the bone marrow and travel around the body in the bloodstream. Sometimes thy may even accumulate in various organs such as the central nervous system (which includes the brain and the spinal cord), spleen, lymph nodes and liver.

Types of Leukemia

Leukemia can either be referred to as acute or chronic as a way of portraying how rapidly the disease develops and progresses [1]. Acute leukemia develops and progresses rapidly. As a result prompt treatment is required upon diagnosis. This type of leukemia is known to affect the immature blood cells in the body and prevents them from maturing. Chronic leukemia on the other hand, develops slowly during the early stages of the disease and progresses at a slow pace for a period ranging from weeks to years.

Again leukemia can be myeloid or lymphoid. These two terms refer to the type of cells in which leukemia first started. Where it starts in the myeloid cell it is called myeloid leukemia. If it starts somewhere in the lymphoid cell it is called lymphatic leukemia. Hence the four types of leukemia are therefore:

  1. Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL)
  2. Acute myeloid leukemia (AML)
  3. Chronic myeloid leukemia (CML
  4. Chronic lymphatic leukemia (CLL)

Causes of Leukemia

Although the causes of leukemia are still largely unknown, possible causes of leukemia include a result from a change in genes responsible for the control and development of blood cells. Another contributory cause of leukemia is exposure to high levels of radiation and chemicals. Risk factors include smoking, ionizing radiation, some chemicals (such as benzene), prior chemotherapy, and Down syndrome.

Symptoms of Leukemia

Due to the absence of normal red cells, white cells and platelets, the common symptoms of leukemia are:

  1. Fatigue – There an increased tendency amongst people with leukemia to be more tired easily.
  2. Susceptibility to bleeding bruises and infections – People with leukemia are more receptive to infections, bleeding and bruising.

Treatment of Leukemia

Generally treatment depends on the health of the patient as well as age. The main treatment used on leukemia is chemotherapy. Other methods of treating leukemia include stem cell transplant or bone marrow transplant.

2. Lymphomas

This is the cancer of the lymphatic system. They arise when developing lymphocytes undergo a cancerous change and multiply in an uncontrolled manner. These abnormal lymphocytes called lymphatic cells form collections of cancer cells that are referred to as cancerous tumors in the lymph nodes or other parts of the body.

Types of Lymphomas

Although there are over 43 different types of lymphoma, they are broadly categorized as the Hodgkin and Non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Amongst the Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is mantle cell lymphoma, which is a phenotypically and genetically distinct type of B-cell Lymphoma [2].

Causes of Lymphomas

Despite the increasing incidence of lymphoma, a direct cause of this type of blood cancer is yet to be uncovered. Like leukemia, a change in genes regulating the growth and development of blood cells can trigger lymphoma. People with a weakened immune system are at an increased risk of developing lymphoma. Again people who are above the age of 50 years are also at risk of developing lymphomas.

Symptoms of Lymphoma

One of the most present symptoms of lymphoma is the swelling of the lymphatic node in the neck under the arms and in the groin. Other symptoms of leukemia are frequent fevers, excessive sweating at night, unintentional weight loss, tiredness and general itching. Where lymphoma develops in deeper nodes of the body such as the abdomen and chest, symptoms include bloating, discomfort in the chest and difficulty breathing. In certain circumstances, the disease is picked up during a routine examination or chest x-ray.

Treatment of Lymphoma

The treatment of lymphoma depends on the type of lymphoma, possible pace of its growth and likelihood of starting problems in the body. Other factors taken into consideration when treating lymphoma are the likelihood of the disease affecting the body of the person and how far the disease has gone in a person’s body at the time of diagnosis. This is because whilst some lymphomas grow slowly and cause few problems, others grow rapidly and need to be treated quickly. The different types of lymphoma include chemotherapy, radiotherapy and immunotherapy. Once in a while, a stem cell transplant is needed to treat lymphoma where a stem cell transplant is used to treat the disease when it relapses or where there is a high likelihood that it will in the future.

3. Myeloma

Myeloma is cancer of plasma cells. Multiple myeloma is characterized by clonal proliferation of malignant plasma cells [4]. Also known as multiple myeloma, these plasma cells are mature B-cells that live in the bone marrow and are responsible for producing antibodies to fight infection. In myeloma, plasma cells become cancerous. They then reproduce rapidly in an unregulated manner. These cancerous cells cause problems in different area in the body. Myeloma may also gather in the bone marrow and interfere with blood cell production and damage the adjacent bones causing pain. Myeloma produces an abnormal type of antibody called paraprotein that could be detected in blood and urine.

Causes of Myeloma

Like all cancers, myeloma is the result of a change in one or more of the gene normally controlling he growth and development of blood cells. Although the causes of myeloma remain majorly unknown, certain risk factors have been identified. Amongst these is ongoing exposure to certain industrial and environmental chemicals, high doses of radiation or excessive weight.

Symptoms of Myeloma

There are various ways by which myeloma may show its symptoms.  Often there are no symptoms during the early stages of myeloma but it could be detected during a routine blood test. However the most common signs of myeloma are:

  1. Bone pain- this is caused by the secretion of a substance by the myeloma cell that causes the bone to breakdown.
  2. Persistent tiredness or fatigue – Persons suffering from myeloma experience an overwhelming and persistent tiredness.

Other symptoms of myeloma consist of anemia and hypercalcaemia.

Treatment of Myeloma

There are diverse ways by which myeloma can be treated. Generally these methods combine therapies that fight off the disease with those that help treat the damage caused by myeloma. The common treatments of myeloma are as follows:

  1. Immunomodulatory drugs – these boost the capacity of the immune system to fight the disease
  2. Proteasome inhibitors – these are therapies that affect the chemical pathways within the myeloma cells killing them.
  3. Chemotherapy – This method is usually followed by stem cell transplant when used on younger and healthier persons who are likely to benefit form this type of treatment.
  4. Corticosteroids – these drugs closely resemble cortisol, a hormone manufactured in the adrenal cortex of vertebrates.
  5. Bone strengthening drugs – Otherwise known as bisphosphonates these accompany therapy as a means of rebuilding bones damaged as a result of myeloma.
  6. Radiotherapy and surgery – prevents and treats problems caused by bone damage.

Blood Cancer in Children

Amongst children, leukemia is the most common of cancers [3]. Lymphoma is the third most common cancer. Leukemia in children is otherwise known as cancer of the bone marrow. Like adults, the excess production of these cancerous white blood cells prevents the body from producing healthy normal cells. The absence of healthy white blood cells prevents the body from being capable of fighting virus and bacteria. It also causes bleeding, bruising and anemia whilst increasing the likelihood of children experiencing infections.

Treating Blood Cancer in Children

Depending on its nature, there are various ways of treating blood cancer in children. For leukemia the method of treating it are chemotherapy, lumbar punctures and stem cell transplant. For lymphoma, chemotherapy and radiotherapy are the two ways by which it can be treated. A stem cell transplant may be required in certain instances. The average treatment of lymphoma lasts approximately six months but can go on for years. Childhood leukemia responds quite well to treatment. This treatment usually carries on for a period of three years for boys and two years for girls.

Living with Blood Cancer

Persons diagnosed with blood cancer have to take steps to keep their body healthy. One of the best ways to do so is by eating well. Eating well has the benefits of helping a patient cope with the side effects of blood cancer and the treatment process. It also speeds up the pace of recovery during the treatment, giving energy whilst reducing tiredness. Other benefits of eating well are; ability to manage body weight, fight infection and repair damaged tissues.



[1] Leukaemia, Lymphoma, Myeloma, MDS, MPN and related blood disorders. (2015) (1st ed.). Retrieved from Date accessed 19 April 2015

[2] Bouabdallah, & MILPIED, N. (2015). Mantle Cell Lymphoma: Individualizing Therapy. Lymphoma And Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemias, 1. doi:10.4137/lcll.s13724

[3] FACT SHEET Blood cancers in children. (2015) (1st ed., p. 1). Retrieved from Date accessed 19 April 2015

[4] Raab, M., Podar, K., Breitkreutz, I., Richardson, P. and Anderson, K. (2009). Multiple myeloma. The Lancet, 374(9686), pp.324-339.