Blood Cancer FAQs

It is estimated that someone in the United States is diagnosed with a blood cancer every three minutes. 1 Blood cancer can affect both children and adults. Whether you’ve been diagnosed or know a friend or family member who has, here’s a list of some common questions about blood cancer.

What is blood cancer?

Blood cancer is a general term that encompasses many different kinds of cancer. Blood cancers are cancers that affect the cells in the blood, in the bone marrow, or in the lymph nodes. While the types of blood cancer are different in who they typically affect, how they respond to various treatments, and some unique symptoms, there are many commonalities among how blood cancers are diagnosed and treated, as well as some common risk factors.2

What are the most common types of blood cancer?

Blood cancers are categorized by the type of cell they originate from, where in the body they begin, and how fast or slow they grow. The major categories of blood cancer are:

  • Leukemias are cancers that typically develop from white blood cells in the bone marrow or blood.
  • Lymphomas are cancers that generally develop from lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell) in the lymphatic system.
  • Myelomas are cancers that develop from plasma cells in the bone marrow.

What are the symptoms of blood cancer?

Blood cancers may cause several general symptoms. It’s important to have these or other symptoms evaluated by a healthcare professional to get a proper diagnosis, since these general symptoms can also be caused by many other conditions. General symptoms that blood cancer may cause include: fatigue, bruising and bleeding, night sweats, enlarged lymph nodes, feeling of fullness in the abdomen, aches in the arms legs or joints, shortness of breath, frequent infections, fevers (especially without an obvious cause), headaches

How are blood cancers diagnosed?

To diagnose blood cancer, doctors may use several tests, including a physical exam, medical history, blood tests (like a complete blood count, blood chemistry, blood smear, and blood clotting tests), bone marrow aspiration and biopsy, lymph node biopsy, lumbar puncture, and imaging tests (like a chest x-ray, computed tomography (CT) scan, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or ultrasound). Some of these tests are also used to rule out other conditions.2

Who is at risk for blood cancer?

Risk factors are identified characteristics that can potentially increase a person’s likelihood of developing a condition. However, having one or more risk factors does not guarantee a person will develop the condition. There are many different types of blood cancer, and while each type has its own unique set of risk factors, there are some common risk factors that apply to multiple kinds of blood cancer. These risk factors include: gender, exposure to some chemotherapy drugs, exposure to radiation, exposure to some chemicals, having certain genetic syndromes, and a family history of blood cancer.

Can blood cancer come back after treatment?

Once you’ve had a diagnosis of blood cancer (or any kind of cancer), there is a chance of the cancer returning after treatment is complete, also called recurrence. In blood cancer, a return of the original kind of cancer after a time of remission (where the disease is undetectable) is also referred to as a relapse.2 The fear of cancer returning is one of the most persistent and distracting aspects that cancer survivors have to face. Individuals with blood cancer may also develop a second cancer, which happens when the patient develops a different type of cancer that is unrelated to their first blood cancer.

What is the difference between chronic and acute leukemia?

In acute leukemias, the cancerous immature blood cells, grow quickly unless treated. In chronic leukemias, the cancerous immature blood cells grow slowly and the disease can remain stable for a long time, even without treatment.

What is the difference between Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma?

Lymphomas develop from lymphocytes, white blood cells that are important in the immune system. Hodgkin lymphoma usually begins in B lymphocytes (B cells), whereas non-Hodgkin lymphoma can begin in either B or T lymphocytes. Most people with HL have classic Hodgkin lymphoma (cHL). In cHL, which accounts for approximately 95% of all HL, the cancerous cells are a specific type of cell referred to as Reed-Sternberg cells. Reed-Sternberg cells are not found in non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Should you get a second opinion after a diagnosis of a blood cancer?

Receiving a blood cancer diagnosis can often present us with many questions, including if our doctor has made the correct diagnosis. Your doctor may be able to provide you with concrete information, treatment plan details, and help you create plan for moving forward, but it doesn’t always mean that this is the best plan, or the plan you HAVE to stick to. Oftentimes, many people get second opinions after their initial diagnosis, before they begin treatment, or at any time during their blood cancer experience. Speaking to another doctor may help you find the best options for you and your specific needs.

What does blood cancer treatment involve?

Treatment for blood cancer is customized to the individual based on several factors, including the type of blood cancer, the stage or extent of the cancer, how quickly the cancer is growing, particular genetic mutations that might be present in the cancer cells, and the age and overall health of the patient. Treatment strategies for blood cancer may include:

In addition, some people may receive supportive care treatments, like blood transfusions or treatment for infections, to relieve symptoms of blood cancer or to treat side effects from other forms of treatment. Many people with blood cancer also find complementary therapies helpful.

What are the common side effects of treatment?

The side effects from treatment for blood cancer depend on the specific treatment given, and side effects vary from person to person. Not everyone who gets the same treatment experiences the same side effects or to the same level of severity. Common side effects can include low blood cell counts, frequent infections, bruising, pain, neuropathy, cognitive changes, nausea, vomiting, and constipation, among others.

Many side effects can be managed, and some can be prevented. Side effects from blood cancer treatment are often temporary and tend to go away after treatment is completed. However, some side effects may last longer or be irreversible.

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