What are Blood Cancers?

The major forms of blood cancer are leukemia, lymphoma and multiple myeloma. These cancers are formed either in the bone marrow or the lymphatic tissues of the body. They affect the way the body makes blood and provides immunity from other diseases. These three types of blood cancers all involve an uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells within the blood and bone marrow. Blood carries oxygen and nutrients to all organs of the body, helps in healing and fights viruses, bacteria and other foreign material in the body. Because blood cancers circulate throughout the entire body, treatments are extremely difficult and can require extended inpatient hospitalization.

Four Major Types of Blood Cancer

Acute Leukemia begins with one or a few white blood cells that have a lost or damaged DNA sequence. These cells remain immature in what’s known as a blast form, but maintain the ability to multiply. Because they don’t mature and die as normal cells do, they accumulate and begin to interfere with functions of vital organs, such as the liver, lungs, kidneys and skin. Eventually, they overwhelm the production of healthy cells. Acute leukemias strike suddenly and abnormal cells multiply extremely rapidly, so immediate and aggressive treatment is required. There are several types of acute leukemias, including Mylogenous and Lymphocitic or Lymphoblastic, and different sub-groups within those types. Prognosis for recovery varies with each.

Chronic leukemia involves more mature blood cells. They replicate and accumulate more slowly, so the progression of the disease is slower, but it can still be deadly. Experts aren’t sure why this process begins. As with the acute leukemias, there are also different types of chronic leukemias. In most cases, chronic leukemias do not require as aggressive treatment as do acute leukemias because of the slower progression of the disease.

Lymphoma is a cancer of a part of the immune system called the lymphatic system. There are many types of lymphoma. One type is called Hodgkin’s disease. The rest are called non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphomas begin when a type of white blood cell, called a T cell or B cell, becomes abnormal. The cell divides again and again, making more and more abnormal cells. These abnormal cells can spread to almost any other part of the body. Most of the time, doctors can’t determine why a person gets non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Myeloma is cancer that begins in plasma cells, a type of white blood cell. Myeloma begins when a plasma cell becomes abnormal. The abnormal cell divides to make copies of itself. The new cells divide again and again, making more and more abnormal cells. The abnormal plasma cells are myeloma cells. Myeloma cells make antibodies called M proteins. Myeloma cells collect in the bone marrow. They may crowd out normal blood cells. Myeloma cells also collect in the solid part of the bone. The disease is called “multiple myeloma” because it affects many bones. (If myeloma cells collect in only one bone, the single mass is called a plasmacytoma.)

Without proper treatment, each of these types of blood cancers eventually lead to a shortage of normal blood cells causing infection, anemia and excessive bleeding. Too many abnormal white blood cells can impair the function of bone marrow and infiltrate other vital organs. Responses to treatment and survival rates for each of these cancers vary greatly.