What is Blood Cancer?

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: January 2020

Blood cancer is a general term that encompasses many different kinds of cancer. Cancer is a disease in which cells in the body begin to multiply and grow out of control. 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.1

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, which typically develop from white blood cells in the bone marrow or blood
  • Lymphomas, which generally develop from lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell) in the lymphatic system
  • Myelomas, which develop from plasma cells in the bone marrow
  • Myelodysplastic syndromes, where the immature cells in the bone marrow don’t properly mature to become healthy blood cells
  • Myeloproliferative neoplasms, where the blood cells grow abnormally, causing too many blood cells of a specific type.1-4

Who gets blood cancer?

It is estimated that a person in the United States is diagnosed with a blood cancer every three minutes.5 Blood cancer can affect children and adults. Some forms of blood cancers occur more commonly in children, but may occur in adults as well. Other forms of blood cancer more commonly affect adults but may rarely occur in younger people.1

Common risk factors

While each specific type of blood cancer has its own set of risk factors, or characteristics, that increase a person’s chances of developing the disease, there are some common risk factors across blood cancers, including:

  • Being male
  • Having had previous cancer treatment, including radiation or chemotherapy
  • Exposure to radiation
  • Exposure to chemicals, including benzene (found in gasoline and the chemical industry)
  • Having genetic disorders, such as Down syndrome
  • Having a family history of blood cancer1,6,7

Prognosis of blood cancer

The prognosis, or expected outcome, of blood cancers varies by the specific type, however, the five-year survival rates for many blood cancers has been increasing over the past few decades. (Survival rates are based on previous outcomes of people who survive a set amount of time after diagnosis. In cancer estimates, experts use the “five-year survival rate” as a marker. However, it is important to keep in mind that many people live beyond five years after diagnosis, and the statistics are not predictive for any one individual.)5,8

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