How Are Blood Cancers Treated?

Treatment for blood cancer is customized to each person based on several factors. This may include:

  • Type of blood cancer
  • Stage or extent of the cancer
  • How quickly the cancer is growing
  • Genetic mutations that might be present in the cancer cells
  • Age and overall health of the person with cancer

Not every person with blood cancer will have the same treatment. Treatment strategies for blood cancer may include:

  • Chemotherapy
  • Targeted therapy
  • Immunotherapy (also called biologic therapy)
  • Radiation therapy
  • Stem cell transplant
  • Surgery
  • Watchful waiting

Some people may also receive supportive care treatments to relieve symptoms or side effects from other forms of treatment. This can include things like blood transfusions or treatment for infections.

Many people with blood cancer also find complementary therapies helpful. Complementary medicine includes practices that are used along with traditional medicine. Examples include:

  • Dietary supplements
  • Massage
  • Acupuncture
  • Hypnosis

It is important to tell your doctor about any complementary therapies you are practicing. This will help ensure that nothing negatively interferes with your treatment.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to stop cancer cells. Chemotherapy drugs may be used in combination with other drugs or alone. They are taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle.1

Chemotherapy works by targeting fast-growing cells, such as cancer cells. However, there are other fast-growing cells in the body that can also be affected, such as those in the gastrointestinal tract and hair.1

Targeted therapy

Targeted therapies are cancer treatments that block or slow the spread of cancer. They do this by interfering with specific areas of cancer cells that are involved in the cells' growth or by focusing on specific features that are unique to cancer cells.1

While chemotherapy drugs typically kill cancer cells, targeted therapy drugs block the growth of cancer cells. Targeted therapies may be used along with chemotherapy to treat certain types of blood cancer.1

Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that aims to boost the body’s own immune system to kill cancer cells.1

Leukapheresis

Some people with blood cancer receive treatment with leukapheresis. During this treatment, blood is filtered through a special machine that removes a portion of white blood cells. The blood is then returned to the body. Leukapheresis can be helpful in cases where high numbers of leukemia cells in the blood are overwhelming the normal blood cells.2

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy uses high-energy radiation to kill cancer cells. It may be used in certain cases of blood cancer that have caused an enlarged spleen. Radiation therapy may also be used to treat bone pain from the growth of blood cancer cells in the bone marrow. Radiation therapy may also be used before a stem cell transplant.1,2

Stem cell transplant

Stem cell transplants are used along with high doses of chemotherapy. The high dose of chemotherapy destroys the cancer cells but it also damages healthy blood cells. Stem cells are then given to restore bone marrow.1

Stem cells are immature cells that can become new blood cells. They may be gathered from the person with cancer before chemotherapy. This is called an autologous transplant. Stem cells may also be given by a donor. This is called an allogeneic transplant.1

Surgery

In some cases, a person with blood cancer may have surgery to remove an enlarged spleen. This surgery is called a splenectomy. While this surgery does not cure blood cancer, it can relieve some of the symptoms, such as when an enlarged spleen presses on other organs like the stomach.2

Watchful waiting

Watchful waiting may be recommended in certain cases of blood cancer where the person not experiencing symptoms from their disease and the blood cancer is slow-growing.4

During watchful waiting, the person does not receive treatment for blood cancer. However, problems like infections are treated. A person’s health is closely monitored during watchful waiting. Doctors watch for any changes in condition and symptoms like fatigue, weight loss, or an enlarged spleen.4

New types of blood cancer treatment

There are many standard therapies available to treat the different types of blood cancer. However, researchers are studying new treatments. Some of these treatments are available in clinical trials.

Clinical trials are an important part of the scientific process to find and prove the safety and effectiveness of new treatments. They offer people a chance to receive the latest treatments and be closely monitored by doctors. If you are interested in participating in a clinical trial, talk to your doctor. They can discuss treatment options with you and help you decide if a clinical trial might be right for you.5

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Written by: Emily Downward | Last reviewed: April 2021