Clinical Services Department MC-21
What are blood cancers?
Most blood cancers, also called hematologic cancers, start in the bone marrow, which is where blood is produced. Blood cancers occur when abnormal blood cells start growing out of control, interrupting the function of normal blood cells, which fight off infection and produce new blood cells. Physicians classify leukemia based on its speed of progression and the type of cells involved.
The first type of classification is by how fast the leukemia progresses:
- Acute leukemia – In acute leukemia, the abnormal blood cells are immature blood cells (blasts). They can’t carry out their normal functions, and they multiply rapidly, so the disease worsens quickly. Acute leukemia requires aggressive, timely treatment.
- Chronic leukemia – Chronic leukemia involves more mature blood cells. These blood cells replicate or accumulate more slowly and can function normally for a period of time. Some forms of chronic leukemia initially produce no early symptoms and can go unnoticed or undiagnosed for years.
The second type of classification is by types of white blood cells affected:
- Lymphocytic leukemia – This type of leukemia affects the lymphoid cells (lymphocytes), which form lymphoid or lymphatic tissue. Lymphatic tissue makes up your immune system.
- Myelogenous leukemia – This type of leukemia affects the myeloid cells. Myeloid cells give rise to red blood cells, white blood cells and platelet-producing cells.
The major types of leukemia are:
- Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) – This is the most common type of leukemia in young children. ALL can also occur in adults.
- Acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) – AML is a common type of leukemia. It occurs in children and adults. AML is the most common type of acute leukemia in adults.
- Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) – With CLL, the most common chronic adult leukemia, you may feel well for years without needing treatment.
- Chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) – This type of leukemia mainly affects adults. A person with CML may have few or no symptoms for months or years before entering a phase in which the leukemia cells grow more quickly.
Some common symptoms include:
- Fever, chills
- Persistent fatigue, weakness
- Loss of appetite, nausea
- Unexplained weight loss
- Night sweats
- Bone/joint pain
- Abdominal discomfort
- Shortness of breath
- Frequent infections
- Itchy skin or skin rash
- Swollen lymph nodes in the neck, underarms or groin
Factors that may increase your risk of developing some types of leukemia include:
- Previous cancer treatment – People who’ve had certain types of chemotherapy and radiation therapy for other cancers have an increased risk of developing certain types of leukemia.
- Genetic disorders – Genetic abnormalities seem to play a role in the development of leukemia. Certain genetic disorders, such as Down syndrome, are associated with an increased risk of leukemia.
- Exposure to certain chemicals- Exposure to certain chemicals, such as benzene — which is found in gasoline and is used by the chemical industry — is linked to an increased risk of some kinds of leukemia.
- Smoking- Smoking cigarettes increases the risk of acute myelogenous leukemia.
- Family history of leukemia- If members of your family have been diagnosed with leukemia, your risk of the disease may be increased.
Treatment for blood cancer depends on the type of cancer, your age, how fast the cancer is progressing, where the cancer has spread, and other factors. Some common blood cancer treatments include:
- Stem cell transplantation: A stem cell transplant infuses healthy blood-forming stem cells into the body. Stem cells may be collected from the bone marrow, circulating blood and umbilical cord blood.
- Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy uses anticancer drugs to interfere with and stop the growth of cancer cells in the body. Chemotherapy for blood cancer sometimes involves giving several drugs together in a set regimen. This treatment may also be given before a stem cell transplant. Examples are:
o Cytotoxic chemotherapy, is the oldest and most commonly used type of cancer treatment, halts cell division and kills rapidly growing cells.
o Inqovi is a combination of two oral chemotherapy drugs, decitabine and cedazuridine, used for the treatment of myelodysplastic syndromes and chronic myelomonocytic leukemia.
- Targeted therapy: Targeted therapy uses drugs that attack specific vulnerabilities within your cancer cells. For example, the drug imatinib (Gleevec) stops the action of a protein within the leukemia cells of people with chronic myelogenous leukemia. This can help control the disease
- Radiation therapy: Radiation therapy may be used to destroy cancer cells or to relieve pain or discomfort. It may also be given before a stem cell transplant.