How Are Blood Cancers Treated?

Treatment for blood cancer is customized to the individual based on several factors, including the type of blood cancer, the stage or extent of the cancer, how quickly the cancer is growing, particular genetic mutations that might be present in the cancer cells, and the age and overall health of the patient. 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

In addition, some people may receive supportive care treatments, like blood transfusions or treatment for infections, to relieve symptoms of blood cancer or to treat side effects from other forms of treatment. Many people with blood cancer also find complementary therapies helpful. Complementary medicine includes practices that are used in combination with traditional medicine, such as dietary supplements, massage, acupuncture, and hypnosis. It is important that patients tell their doctors about any complementary practices they may take part in to ensure that nothing interferes negatively with their treatment.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to stop cancer cells. Chemotherapy medications may be used in combination, and chemotherapy drugs may be taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle. 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 by interfering with specific areas of cancerous cells that are involved in the cancer cell’s growth, or by focusing on particular characteristics that are unique to cancer cells. While chemotherapy drugs are typically cytotoxic, meaning they kill cancer cells, targeted therapy is typically cytostatic, meaning it blocks the growth of cancer cells. Targeted therapies may be used in combination 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, a technique in which the blood is filtered through a special machine that removes a portion of white blood cells, and then returns the blood to the patient. 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 or to treat bone pain from the growth of blood cancer cells in the bone marrow. Radiation therapy may also be used prior to a stem cell transplant.

Stem cell transplant

Stem cell transplants are used in combination with high doses of chemotherapy. The high dose of chemotherapy destroys the cancer cells and also damages healthy blood cells. The transplant of stem cells, immature cells that can become new blood cells, is given to restore the bone marrow. The stem cells may be gathered from the patient prior to chemotherapy (called an autologous transplant), or they may be given by a donor (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 patient is not experiencing symptoms from their disease and the blood cancer is slow growing. During watchful waiting, the person does not receive treatment for blood cancer, although problems like infections are treated. A person’s health is monitored closely during watchful waiting, and doctors will watch for any changes in their condition and the potential appearance of symptoms, including fatigue, weight loss, or an enlarged spleen.4

New types of treatment

In addition to the standard therapies available to treat the different types of blood cancer, new treatments are being researched and some 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, and they offer patients a chance to receive the latest treatments and be closely monitored by healthcare professionals. Clinical trials can be found by talking to a doctor or through the website ClinicalTrials.gov. Patients can discuss treatment options with their doctor to determine if they might be eligible to participate in a clinical trial.5

Written by: Emily Downward | Last reviewed: March 2018
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