The basics of blood cancer

Written by Community Health Network on 2/9/2014 9:15:00 PM

Blood cancer specialist, Dr. Sumeet BhatiaSumeet Bhatia, M.D., is a board certified medical oncologist, hematologist and internal medicine specialist. Dr. Bhatia is also a certified MD Anderson Cancer Network® physician.

Every four minutes in America someone is diagnosed with a blood cancer. These types of cancers include leukemia, lymphoma, and myeloma, as well as many other rare blood and bone marrow disorders. As a medical oncologist treating these cancers, Dr. Bhatia says he feels very optimistic when treating these types of cancer. Dr. Bhatia helps break down the types and gives us the basics on blood cancer.

Is there a typical age that someone gets cancer of the blood?

These cancers do not respect age. Cancers of the blood affect the youngest and the oldest of people, and many in between. Last year in Indiana, 2,910 cases of lymphoma, leukemia or myeloma were diagnosed and 1,220 people died. A quarter of those cases were diagnosed in children and teens. Leukemia remains the most common type of childhood cancer and non-Hodgkin lymphoma is the third most common type of cancer among children.

What are the most common blood cancer types?

Leukemia can come on suddenly and makes the individual very sick very fast. Older patients with leukemia often experience back pain that doesn’t subside, fatigue and bleeding. Chronic leukemia may even be detected accidentally when the person has fever and enlarged spleen or swollen stomach.

Both Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma are characterized by nights sweats. These patients may not initially present with any other symptoms, but lab tests are used to help make a diagnosis. 

Myeloma is most often diagnosed in adults over 60 years old. This cancer can be a very slow growing cancer. There have been many medical advances in the treatment of myeloma since the 1990s. At that time, the survival prognosis was just 18 months. Now, individuals with myeloma have a much longer survival rate: 12 or more years. 

With myeloma there is a variable course of treatment based on the presentation of the cancer. Often anemia, bone pain, kidney problems and neuropathy are symptoms that many patients cite when they first come to our office.

How are leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma different?

Unexplained weight loss, feeling tired and weak, fever and night sweats, infection, swollen lymph nodes are all common symptoms among the three types of blood cancer. However, there are differences: Leukemia symptoms often include a swollen stomach, easy bruising and bleeding, and pain in the bones and joints.

Lymphoma symptoms will often include itchy skin, coughing and breathing difficulty that includes chest pain.

Within lymphoma there is Hodgkin’s, which often produces pain in the lymph nodes after drinking alcohol. Non-Hodgkin’s produces a feeling of fullness in the stomach that is often swollen and even painful.

Myeloma symptoms often include frequent broken bones, as well as pain in the back and ribs. These patients may also have a strong thirst and frequent urination coupled with nausea and constipation.

Are these blood cancers genetic?

Leukemia is linked to family history, but myeloma and lymphoma do not appear to be hereditary.

Are there new advances for diagnosing these blood cancers?

We use lab tests and urine tests to evaluate the blood and the lymphatic systems in the body. We look at the blood under a microscope. Chest x-rays evaluate swollen lymph nodes, changes to bone marrow or the bones themselves. CT scans and PET scans are also utilized in some selected cases. Sometimes we need to take a bone needle biopsy of the bone marrow to see if cancer cells are in the marrow. We also use a cytogenetics test to see if your genetic material has changed.

Since myeloma seems to affect the bones, can adults do anything to improve bone health?

There are new medications for people with cancer that improve bone health. Different cancers can affect the bones in many different ways. Multiple myeloma starts in the bones. Other cancers, like breast, prostate, lung and kidney cancer may spread to the bones. This often leads to a weakening of the bone and even fractures. Bone health is one of those things that we follow very closely at Community Regional Cancer Care Centers.

To learn more about blood cancer symptoms and treatments, like transfusions, visit our website.

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