Blood Cancer Risk Factors & Causes

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: February 2018

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.

What are the risk factors of blood cancer?


Some blood cancers occur more often in males than females. However, this doesn't mean that females don't get blood cancer. There are simply a higher percentage of males who get certain blood cancers than females.1

Exposure to some chemotherapy drugs

Some chemotherapy drugs, including alkylating agents, platinum agents, and topoisomerase II inhibitors, have been linked to an increased risk of certain blood cancers. In some cases, people who have been treated with these chemotherapy drugs may develop myelodysplastic syndrome, a specific type of blood cancer.1,2

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Exposure to radiation

Previous exposure to radiation treatment for other cancers can increase the risk of developing blood cancer. The effect of radiation was studied in people exposed to the atomic bombs in Japan. Generally, the higher the dose of radiation, the greater the risk of developing blood cancer, and the extreme doses of radiation at the atomic bomb sites, as well as at nuclear reactor accident sites, greatly increases the risk of blood cancer. Radiation exposure can occur in a workplace, as a result of previous cancer treatment, or as a result of imaging tests, like computed tomography (CT) scans or x-rays, although the risk can vary greatly between these different types of exposure.1

Exposure to some chemicals

Certain chemicals, including some used in chemotherapy treatments used for cancer, can increase a person's risk of developing blood cancer. One chemical in particular that can increase the risk of certain blood cancers is benzene. Benzene can be found in cigarette smoke, many cleaning products, detergents, art supplies, paint strippers, and glue. Benzene can also be used in the rubber, chemical, oil, and gasoline industries.2

Having certain genetic syndromes

There are some inherited syndromes that are associated with a higher risk of developing certain blood cancers, including Fanconi anemia, Bloom syndrome, ataxia-telangiectasia, Diamond-Blackfan anemia, Schwachman-Diamond syndrome, Down syndrome, severe congenital neutropenia, trisomy 8, and neurofibromatosis type 1.1,2

Family history

Having a close family member (like a parent or a sibling) who has a certain blood cancer can potentially increase a person's risk of developing the disease.1

Risk factors specific to certain types of blood cancer

The characteristics described above are general risk factors that potentially can apply to multiple types of blood cancer, but each subtype of blood cancer has their own risk factors as well. For example:

  • Research has shown that veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange in the Vietnam War are potentially at higher risk of developing chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) and other blood cancers.3
  • People who have had Epstein-Barr virus, which causes mononucleosis (or "mono"), have a potential increased risk of developing Hodgkin lymphoma (HL).4
  • People with autoimmune diseases, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and/or acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), and organ transplant recipients have an increased risk of developing non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).5
  • Research has suggested that obesity may be a risk factor for developing myeloma.6
  • People of Eastern European Jewish descent have a higher incidence of polycythemia vera, a myeloproliferative neoplasm.7