Describing Blood Cancer to a Person Who Doesn't Have It

A cancer diagnosis is a very distressing event. As a cancer survivor, I had to learn to explain what blood cancer is in simple terms. Friends and family wanted to understand what was going on and how they might help.

In blood cancer, malignant cells rapidly multiply and attack different aspects of the blood, lymphatic system, and bone marrow cells. These cancers change the way the blood cells behave. White blood cells (WBC), fight infection as part of the immune system. Red blood cells carry oxygen to the body’s tissues. Platelets help the body clot when an injury occurs.

Types of blood cancers

The basic types of blood cancer include leukemia, lymphoma, and myeloma.


Leukemia affects the WBCs, producing immature cells that cannot fight infections. There are four types of leukemia depending on the type of WBC affected and whether the cells grow quickly (acute) or slowly (chronic).

Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) affects lymphocytes, making too many which crowd out other white blood cells, this disease advances quickly affecting children and older adults.

Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) affects myeloid cells which quickly grow into WBCs, RBCs, platelets thus reducing healthy cells.

Chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) develops from the myeloid cells, which are cells that develop into red blood cells, platelets, and white blood cells.

Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) affects lymphocytes cells, grows slowly, most common in adults.

Symptoms of leukemia may include anemia, weakness, extreme fatigue, shortness of breath and a lowered resistance to infections.


Lymphoma affects the lymph nodes, spleen, and thymus gland.

There are two types: Hodgkin lymphoma starts in the B cells, which make antibodies that fight infection.

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma starts in B or T cells, subtypes based on where in the body cancer occurs.

Symptoms of lymphoma may include swollen lymph nodes, weight loss, reduced appetite, fever, chills, and night sweats.


Myeloma affects the plasma cells. Symptoms may include fatigue, back pain, lowered resistance to infection, and shortness of breath.

Diagnosis and treatment

There are no definite causes of blood cancers, but associated factors may include family history, exposure to radiation or carcinogenic chemicals, or HIV infection.

Diagnosis of blood cancers may include a CAT scan, PET scan, MRI, lymph node biopsy, and bone marrow biopsy.

Various treatments for blood cancers may include chemotherapy, immunotherapy, radiotherapy, or stem cell transplant. Current research is developing new modalities to promote cure or remission in certain cases.

Blood cancer survivors

Blood cancer survivors are encouraged to maintain a healthy lifestyle and follow treatment regimens as recommended by their physician. For me, this includes scheduled physician visits, lab work, and annual CAT scans.

Family and friends can support a blood cancer survivor by understanding the disease, offering help to maintain a healthy lifestyle, avoid infections or anyone with an illness, and encouraging rest and good nutrition.

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