Understanding Blood Cancer: A Comprehensive Guide for Blood Cancer Awareness Month
September marks Blood Cancer Awareness Month, a dedicated time to shed light on a group of complex and often misunderstood conditions that affect millions of lives worldwide. Characterised by the abnormal growth and behaviour of blood cells, blood cancer arises when the delicate balance between production and regulation is upset. This uncontrolled proliferation of cells can undermine the body's ability to fight infections, carry oxygen, and maintain essential bodily functions. The effects reverberate far beyond the confines of our veins, impacting individuals, families, and communities on a profound level. In 2020, there were around 1.3 million new cases of blood cancer worldwide. In this article, we will unravel the complexities of blood cancer in order to create awareness and contribute to understanding this condition.
What is Blood Cancer?
Blood cancer, also known as hematologic cancer or hematological malignancy, refers to a group of cancers that affect the blood, bone marrow, and lymphatic system. These cancers develop when there are abnormalities in the production and function of blood cells, including red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. Blood cancer can manifest in various forms, including Lymphoma, Leukemia and Myeloma. These types of blood cancers can have diverse subtypes, each with its own characteristics, progression rates, and treatment approaches. Currently, doctors are aware of at least 100 distinct forms of blood cancers. Each one has unique difficulties, solutions, and perspectives.
The Causes of Blood Cancer blood cancer
Blood-producing cells accumulate cancer-causing DNA alterations and malfunction, which leads to the development of blood malignancies. The causes of blood cancer are multifactorial and often complex, arising from a combination of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors. In many cases, specific genetic mutations or changes in the DNA of blood cells can trigger abnormal growth and development, leading to the onset of blood cancer.
Environmental factors such as exposure to certain chemicals, radiation, or toxins can increase the risk of developing blood cancer by damaging the genetic material within cells. Additionally, chronic infections and some autoimmune disorders have been linked to an increased risk of certain types of blood cancer. Advancing age is another significant risk factor, as the accumulation of genetic mutations over time can contribute to the development of blood cancer. However, it's essential to note that while these factors can increase the risk, they don't guarantee the development of blood cancer, and many cases still lack a clear identifiable cause.
Ongoing research aims to uncover more insights into the complex interplay of these factors in order to improve prevention strategies, early detection, and treatment options for individuals affected by blood cancer.
There are three main types of blood cancer and they are:
Lymphoma is a type of blood cancer that specifically affects the lymphatic system, a crucial component of the body's immune system. This intricate network of lymph nodes, vessels, and organs works together to help the body fight infections and diseases. Lymphoma originates when lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell, undergo abnormal growth and multiply uncontrollably, forming tumours in lymph nodes or other parts of the lymphatic system.
There are two main categories of lymphoma: Hodgkin lymphoma (HL) and non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), each with distinct characteristics and subtypes. Hodgkin lymphoma is characterised by the presence of a specific abnormal cell called the Reed-Sternberg cell, which helps pathologists distinguish it from other types of lymphoma. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma encompasses a broader range of lymphomas and is further divided into various subtypes, each with unique behaviour, progression rates, and treatment approaches.
Lymphoma can occur in various parts of the body, leading to symptoms such as swollen lymph nodes, fever, night sweats, fatigue, unexplained weight loss, and itching. Accurate diagnosis involves a combination of physical examination, imaging tests, biopsies, and laboratory studies to determine the subtype and stage of the lymphoma. Staging helps guide treatment decisions and prognosis.
Leukaemia, a type of blood cancer, is a condition characterised by the abnormal production and proliferation of immature white blood cells in the bone marrow, eventually leading to an overabundance of these abnormal cells in the bloodstream. This disrupts the normal function of white blood cells, which play a crucial role in the body's immune system.
Leukaemia is classified into different types based on the speed of progression and the type of white blood cell affected. The main types of leukaemia include Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (ALL) — rapidly progressing leukaemia that primarily affects lymphocytes in children, Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL) — slowly progressing leukaemia that mainly affects mature lymphocytes in adults, Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML) — a fast-growing leukaemia that affects myeloid cells, a type of white blood cell that gives rise to other types of blood cells like red blood cells and platelets and Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia (CML) — overgrowth of mature myeloid cells.
This cancer can present a range of symptoms, including fatigue, weakness, pale skin, fever, frequent infections, easy bruising or bleeding, weight loss, and swollen lymph nodes. These symptoms can be vague and mimic other conditions, making diagnosis challenging.
Treatment for leukaemia depends on the type, stage, and individual health factors. Therapies may include chemotherapy, targeted therapy, radiation, stem cell transplantation, and in some cases, immunotherapy. Advances in medical research have led to improved treatment options and higher survival rates for many individuals diagnosed with leukaemia.
Myeloma, also known as multiple myeloma, is a type of blood cancer that specifically affects plasma cells, which are a type of white blood cell. Plasma cells are crucial components of the immune system responsible for producing antibodies, proteins that play a vital role in defending the body against infections. In myeloma, these plasma cells become malignant and start to multiply uncontrollably within the bone marrow, crowding out healthy blood cells and interfering with their normal function.
One of the distinctive features of myeloma is the production of abnormal proteins known as monoclonal proteins or M proteins. These proteins are not effective in fighting infections like regular antibodies and can cause problems when they accumulate in the body. They can lead to complications such as kidney damage, weakened bones, and impaired blood clotting.
Symptoms of myeloma can be diverse and nonspecific, often making diagnosis challenging. Common signs include bone pain, fatigue, weakness, recurrent infections, and unexplained weight loss. Some individuals may also experience symptoms related to kidney problems, anaemia, and a higher susceptibility to fractures due to weakened bones.
Symptoms of blood cancer
The symptoms of blood cancer can vary depending on the specific type of blood cancer and its stage. Some of the common symptoms that individuals with blood cancer might experience include:
- Heavy sweating at night
- Persistent or recurrent infections
- Uncomfortable pain in bones and joints
- Unusual or frequent bruising and bleeding
- Looking very pale or greyish coloured
- Feeling breathless
- Persistent tiredness, or weakness
- Other unexplained general symptoms such as weight loss, rash or itchy skin, lumps or swellings
It's important to note that these symptoms can also be caused by various other conditions, so experiencing one or more of these symptoms does not necessarily mean you have blood cancer. However, if you notice persistent or unexplained symptoms, it's advisable to consult a healthcare professional for a proper evaluation and diagnosis. Early detection and treatment can significantly impact the outcomes for individuals with blood cancer.
How is blood cancer treated?
The treatment for blood cancer depends on the specific type of blood cancer, its stage, the individual's overall health, and other factors. There are several treatment approaches used to manage blood cancer, and often a combination of therapies is employed to achieve the best possible outcomes. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy are common treatments that have been established over many years and are still quite effective today. Researchers have made significant progress in creating novel, potent therapies for blood cancer that can be used in conjunction with current ones. These include:
- Targeted therapies- which target particular molecules involved in the development of cancer.
- Immunotherapies (such as CAR-T therapy) - which harness the immune system.
- Stem cell transplants include replacing blood stem cells that have been infected with cancer with your own or another person's fresh, healthy stem cells.
While some blood cancers progress rapidly, others can take years. Some blood cancers that develop slowly may not require prompt therapy for the patient. Instead, they might be carefully observed throughout time.