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What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Blood Cancer?

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

There are many different types of cancer that may be included under the general term of blood cancer, and each unique type has its own set of symptoms. However, there are some symptoms that are common across multiple different blood cancers, which are described below.

Blood cancers are cancers that can affect the cells in the blood, in the bone marrow, or in the lymph nodes. As the cancerous cells grow, they can crowd out the healthy blood cells, which include red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. Many of the symptoms of blood cancers are typically related to the lower than normal amounts of these blood cells. If the body does not have enough red blood cells, it is called anemia. A lack of white blood cells is called neutropenia, and when there are not enough platelets, thrombocytopenia occurs. When all three types of blood cells are low, it is referred to as pancytopenia.1,2

Low red blood cells

If blood cancer impacts the development of red blood cells (RBCs), anemia occurs. RBCs are responsible for carrying oxygen to the cells from the lungs and transporting carbon dioxide from the cells back to the lungs. Anemia can cause the body to experience certain symptoms related to not having enough oxygen, including:

  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness or feeling lightheaded
  • Headache
  • Cold hands or feet
  • Fast or irregular heartbeat
  • Pale skin
  • Chest pain3

Low white blood cells

If blood cancer causes a lower than normal white blood cell (WBC) count, neutropenia occurs. WBCs are the immune system's first line of defense, and neutropenia can increase the risk of infections and may cause symptoms including:

  • Repeated infections, or infections that won't go away
  • Fevers, especially without an obvious cause
  • Chills or sweating
  • Mouth sores
  • Fatigue or malaise
  • Sore throat
  • Skin sores4

Low platelets

If blood cancer causes a lack of platelets, the body's ability to clot normally is impacted (thrombocytopenia). Platelets, also called thrombocytes, can stick together (coagulate) at the site of an injury to form a fibrin clot. The fibrin also creates an internal structure for new tissue to grow and healing to occur. If a person does not have a sufficient quantity of platelets, they can have difficulty forming clots and experience significant blood loss from injury. Symptoms from thrombocytopenia can include:

  • Frequent bruises, especially without a clear reason
  • Easily bleeding, such as from cuts, from the gums, or frequent nosebleeds
  • Small, pinhead-sized red spots on the skin (called "petechiae")
  • Blood in urine or stool
  • Heavier menstrual flows than usual
  • Prolonged bleeding from cuts
  • Fatigue
  • Enlarged spleen5

Other symptoms of blood cancer

Many of the general symptoms of blood cancers can also be caused by other conditions, and it is important to be evaluated by a healthcare professional to determine the cause of these symptoms. In addition, not every person with blood cancer has the same symptoms. General symptoms that may be caused by certain blood cancers include:

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