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Blood Cancer: Types, Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment

The blood is a vital fluid for the body. It carries oxygen from the lungs to the cells of the body. Blood also provides the cells with nutrients, transports hormones, and removes waste products. It helps to keep certain values of the body in balance. For example, it makes sure that the right body temperature is maintained. It also plays an important role in the immune system. A dysfunction in cellular growth and behavior results in cancer. New white blood cells regularly generate to replace old, dying ones in a healthy person. When cancer occurs in the blood, it’s usually the result of an abnormal and extreme reproduction of white blood cells. The excessive production of white blood cells in the bone marrow leads to blood cancers. It affects the production and function of your blood cells. These abnormal blood cells prevent blood from performing many of its functions, like fighting off infections or preventing serious bleeding.

There are three main types of blood cancers:
  • Leukemia: It is a type of cancer that occurs in your blood and bone marrow. Rapid production of abnormal white blood cells results in Leukemia. The high number of abnormal white blood cells are not able to fight infection, and they weaken the ability of the bone marrow to produce red blood cells and platelets.
  • Lymphoma: It is a type of blood cancer that attacks the lymphatic system, which removes excess fluids from your body and produces immune cells. Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cell that fights infection. Abnormal lymphocytes become lymphoma cells, which reproduce and collect in lymph nodes and other tissues. Over time, these cancerous cells impair your immune system.
  • Myeloma: It 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 natural production of antibodies, leaving your body’s immune system weakened and susceptible to infection. 

Causes of Blood Cancer:

  • Genetics
  • Certain infections
  • Aging
  • Weak immune system

Blood cancer risk factor

  • Smoking
  • Chemical Exposures
  • Chemotherapy Drugs
  • Radiation Exposure
  • Certain Blood Disorders
  • Genetics

Blood cancer signs and symptoms

The most common signs and symptoms include:

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Unexplained bruising or bleeding
  • Lumps or swellings
  • Drenching night sweats
  • Persistent, recurrent or severe infections
  • Unexplained fever (38°C or above)
  • An unexplained rash or itchy skin
  • Bone, joint or abdominal pain
  • Tiredness that doesn’t improve with rest or sleep
  • Breathlessness
  • Unusually pale complexion (pallor)

Most people with these symptoms won’t necessarily have blood cancer. But if you experience any, it’s really important that you find out what’s causing them before they get life-threatening. If you have any symptoms that are persistent, unexplained, book an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible.

Diagnosis

If a person is suspected to have a type of blood cancer, there are several tests that will typically be run. Some of the tests can rule out other conditions that can also cause some of the general symptoms of blood cancer, and other tests are used to determine the specific type of blood cancer a person is suffering from. The subtype of cancer is important as it helps inform treatment recommendations.

Medical history

A medical history generally consists of written and verbal questions to understand the symptoms the patient is experiencing and how long the symptoms have been present, health history of close family members, previous surgeries, previous or current illnesses, allergies, immunizations, etc

Physical exam

The physical exam includes a visual inspection (looking), palpation (feeling), auscultation (listening, often with a stethoscope), and percussion (producing sounds through tapping) to examine the patient’s body for potential signs of disease.

Blood tests

Several blood tests may be run to diagnose blood cancer and rule out other conditions:

  • A complete blood count (CBC) is a commonly performed lab test that measures the number of red blood cells (RBCs), white blood cells (WBCs), and platelets, and gives the amount of hemoglobin in the blood, and the percentage of blood that is RBCs
  • A peripheral blood smear is a test that may be run as a follow-up if there are abnormal results on the CBC. The blood smear has a description of the appearance of RBCs, WBCs, and platelets, as well as any abnormalities that may be present.
  • Blood chemistry is commonly performed to measure a person’s health status. Abnormal levels of certain elements in the blood (like electrolytes and some proteins) may be caused by cancer, but they can also be indicators of other health problems.
  • Blood clotting tests measure if blood coagulates (clots) normally. Some blood cancers can reduce the number of platelets and cause frequent bruising or bleeding.
Lymph node biopsy

Some blood cancers require a lymph node biopsy to confirm a diagnosis. In a lymph node biopsy, a lymph node or a part of one is removed through a surgical procedure.

Bone marrow aspiration and biopsy

The bone marrow aspiration and biopsy are samples of bone marrow that are taken usually from the hip (pelvic) bone. The aspiration uses a large, hollow needle to remove some of the liquid bone marrow. The bone marrow biopsy is done at the same time with a large needle that is twisted in to remove a small piece of bone, as well as marrow. 

Genetic testing

Cytogenetic testing, also called karyotyping, determines any potential chromosomal abnormalities or mutations in blood cancer. These tests are helpful in diagnosis, prognosis, selecting appropriate treatment, and monitoring treatment effectiveness.

Spinal tap

A spinal tap, also known as a spinal fluid test or lumbar puncture, is a procedure to collect a sample of the cerebrospinal fluid – the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord and acts as a cushion. The fluid is taken from the lumbar region of the back while the person typically lies on their side with their knees pulled up to their chest. A spinal tap may be performed to see if cancer has spread to the cerebrospinal fluid.

Imaging tests

Imaging tests are a mixture of different assessments that use medical equipment to create pictures of the body. Several different imaging tests may be used during the diagnosis or staging of blood cancer.

Blood cancer treatment options

Treatment for blood cancer depends on the type of cancer, person’s age, how fast the cancer is progressing, where cancer has spread, and other factors. Some common blood cancer treatments include

Chemotherapy

Our doctors may prescribe chemotherapy, the most common treatment for blood cancers. You may receive one drug or several in combination, depending on your cancer type, stage, and biology. While some of these medications are taken by mouth, many others are given intravenously (by vein). Chemo is usually done in cycles – a treatment period followed by rest periods. This allows your body to recover and build up strength.

Targeted Therapy

Targeted therapy is a type of drug treatment that attacks specific features of cancer cells, known as molecular targets, to stop the cancer growing and spreading. The drugs circulate throughout the body. Each drug acts on a particular molecular target within or on the surface of cancer cells (for example, a gene or protein). These molecular targets are involved in the growth and survival of cancer cells. Blocking them can kill cancer cells or slow their growth while minimizing damage to healthy cells. Targeted therapy drugs are used to control cancer growth.

Bone Marrow Transplantation

Bone marrow transplantation (BMT) replaces damaged bone marrow with healthy bone marrow from a donor. donor’s healthy blood-forming cells begin to grow and make healthy red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets.

Radiation Therapy

Radiotherapy works by damaging the genetic material (DNA) within cells, which prevents them from growing and reproducing. It is usually used to ease the symptoms or to prepare a patient for bone marrow transplantation.

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