Blood is an integral part of the human body. It is a continuously flowing fluid that carries nutrients, oxygen through the body, and helps in the removal of waste. Blood is composed of red blood cells, white blood cells,platelets, and plasma.
Blood Cancer refers to a group of malignancies that affect the blood, bone marrow, or lymph nodes. These malignancies result in uncontrolled blood cell production and altered function. Blood cancer occurs when abnormal blood cells start growing out of control, interrupting the blood cells’ normal functioning, which fights off the infection and produces new blood cells. These blood cells, which can no longer carry out normal cell functions and don’t die a natural death, are known as cancer cells. They enter the bloodstream and multiply uncontrollably, crowding out the healthy cells.
The three major categories of blood cancer are Leukemia, Lymphoma, and Myeloma:
Leukemia is a type of blood cancer in which the bone marrow is affected. Bone marrow is a group of tissues inside the bone of some parts such as thighs or hips. Bone marrow generates the stem cells, and these stem cells develop into blood cells, mainly Red Blood cells (RBC), White Blood cells (WBC), and platelets. These blood cells carry out the essential functions of the body. RBC carries oxygen through the body, WBC helps fight infections, and platelets help in blood clotting. In Leukemia, these normal blood cells become cancerous and grow abnormally. There is an uncontrolled production of WBCs, namely Neutrophil, Lymphocyte, and Monocyte, that disrupts the bone marrow’s normal functioning.
Leukemia is further classified into different types depending on the kind of cells affected (Myeloblasts or Lymphocytes), the speed at which the cancer cells grow (Acute or Chronic).
Lymphoma refers to a group of blood cancers that affects the lymphatic system, a part of the immune system. The lymphatic system comprises organs and tissues that help the body get rid of wastes and toxins. The lymphatic system aids in transporting a fluid called Lymph. Lymph carries WBCs throughout the body.
Lymphoma is of two types:
- Hodgkin Lymphoma begins in the lymphatic system from a type of white blood cells called lymphocytes. Hodgkin lymphoma is marked by the presence of a specific type of lymphocyte called Reed-Sternberg cells. It mostly arises in the upper part of the body.
- Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma is a more common type of lymphoma. It develops in the lymphatic system from cells called lymphocytes, a variety of white blood cells. It can arise in the lymph nodes in any part of the body.
Multiple Myeloma is a type of blood cancer in which the plasma cells begin to grow uncontrollably. A healthy plasma helps in fighting against infections by producing antibodies. But in multiple myeloma, the cancerous plasma cells crowd out the healthy plasma cells in the bone marrow. This crowding disrupts the normal functioning of the plasma. and immunity is compromised.
Lymphomas and Leukemia affect adults and children both, but Multiple Myeloma is a comparatively common condition that affects adults.
Symptoms of blood cancer:
- Fatigue and weakness
- Nausea and vomiting
- Sudden weight loss or loss of appetite
- Recurring infections
- Night sweats
- Shortness of breath
- Bone and Joint pain
- Abnormal bleeding and unusual bruising
- Swelling of lymph nodes, liver, and spleen
- Anemia, some patients may also develop anemia
Treatment options for blood cancer
Thanks to advanced medical technologies, blood cancer can be treated, and a patient can get a second chance at life. The primary treatment options for blood cancer include Chemotherapy, Targeted therapy, and Immunotherapy.
The targeted therapies aren’t always able to treat blood cancer, so a bone marrow transplant or stem cell transplant is recommended in a progressed stage. In some cases, cancer surgery is also a treatment option.
In chemotherapy, anticancer drugs are injected into the target cells to kill cancer cells or stop the abnormal growth.
Radiation therapy may be used to destroy cancer cells or to relieve pain or discomfort. Radiation therapy uses high-powered beams, such as X-rays or protons, to kill the cancer cells.
In this type of treatment, drugs specifically target and kill the cancer cells without affecting the normal cells. Targeted therapy is most commonly used to treat Leukemia.
In immunotherapy, the immune system of the patients’ body is triggered to kill the cancer cells.
Affected lymph nodes are removed to treat some of the lymphomas via surgery.
Stem cell transplant
In most cases, the only chance at survival for a blood cancer patient is with a stem cell or bone marrow transplant. About 70 to 90% of the patients can get a new lease of life after a successful stem cell transplant, depending on the disease condition and the donor type.
In a stem cell transplant, healthy blood-forming stem cells from a donor are imbued into the patient’s body. The donor can be a close relative like a sibling (brother or sister) or maybe an unrelated donor whose cells are well-matched with the patient. Stem cells are extracted from the donor’s blood and kept in the laboratory until the transplant.
A bone marrow or stem cell transplant begins with a high dose of chemotherapy or radiation to destroy the cancer cells producing bone marrow. The marrow is then replaced by the healthy bone marrow from a matching donor. This procedure allows someone with blood cancer to re-establish healthy bone marrow by replacing cancerous bone marrow with cancer-free marrow from a healthy person.
A stem cell transplant is the most successful treatment option and helps a person live longer. But the road to recovery can take a long time. During the recovery phase, children can usually live a relatively normal life and go back to school, and adults may continue working. They need emotional and psychological support to overcome the treatment effects and recover fast.
Risk factors associated with blood cancer
Various factors increase a persons’ risk of getting blood cancer. But it is to be noted that not all people with risk factors will get blood cancer. Find below some of the risk factors:
- Family history
- Age-related factors
- Certain types of recurring infections
- Occupational hazards and exposure to certain chemicals
- Genetic disorder (such as down syndrome)
- Weak immune system due to HIV/AIDS
- Recipient of a solid organ transplant