Blood cancer endangers an essential life force — our blood cells. These cells give us energy, help us fight infection and keep us from bleeding too much. Fortunately, there are many effective and safe ways to treat blood cancer.
Blood cancer affects how your body produces blood cells and how well those cells work. Most blood cancers start in your bone marrow, the soft, sponge-like material in the center of your bones. Your bone marrow makes stem cells that mature and become red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets.
Normal blood cells fight infection, carry oxygen throughout your body and control bleeding. Blood cancer happens when something disrupts how your body makes blood cells. If you have blood cancer, abnormal blood cells overwhelm normal blood cells, creating a ripple effect of medical conditions. More people are living longer with blood cancer, as healthcare providers find new ways to treat it.
Blood cancers are serious illnesses, but other cancer types are more deadly. Blood cancers represent about 10% of all cancers diagnosed in the United States each year, and an estimated 3% of all cancer-related deaths. National Cancer Institute data show a steady decline in blood cancer deaths.
Survival rates are estimates based on averages. Your healthcare provider may share five-year survival rates as a way of explaining how your blood cancer may affect your health five years after diagnosis. Survival rates are different for each of the three blood cancer types, but many people who have blood cancer can expect to survive as long as most other people.
There are three blood cancer types, each with several subtypes. Those cancer types and subtypes are:
Researchers know blood cancer happens when blood cell DNA changes or mutates, but they aren’t sure why this happens. Your DNA tells cells what to do. In blood cancer, DNA tells blood cells when to grow, when to divide or multiply and/or when to die.
When DNA gives your cells new instructions, your body develops abnormal blood cells that grow and multiply faster than normal and sometimes live longer than normal. When that happens, normal blood cells become lost in an ever-growing horde of abnormal cells that crowd your normal cells and monopolize space in your bone marrow.
Eventually, your bone marrow produces fewer normal cells. That means there aren’t enough normal cells available to do their essential tasks: carrying oxygen through your body, fighting infection and controlling bleeding. Here’s how genetic change may cause the three blood cancer types:
Blood cancer symptoms vary based on blood cancer type, but there some symptoms all three have in common:
Many blood cancer symptoms are similar to other less serious illnesses’ symptoms. Having any of these symptoms doesn’t mean you have blood cancer. But you should contact your healthcare provider when you notice symptoms or changes in your body that last more than a few weeks.
Healthcare providers may begin diagnosis by asking about your symptoms and your medical history. They’ll do complete physical examinations. They may order several kinds of blood and imaging tests, too. The tests they’ll use may be different for each suspected blood cancer type. Tests used to diagnose blood cancer include:
Blood cancer treatment isn’t one-size-fits-all. Some blood cancer types respond well to specific treatments. Some blood cancer treatments have significant side effects. Healthcare providers consider factors, including your age, your overall health, the kind of blood cancer you have and specific treatment side effects, before recommending a treatment plan. Some common treatments for blood cancer include:
Blood cancer treatment often combines chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Both treatments are effective but have different side effects. If you’re receiving chemotherapy or radiation therapy, ask your healthcare provider about side effects. Here is information about other potential treatment side effects:
Blood cancer happens when blood cell DNA changes or mutates. Researchers don’t know why this happens, which makes it hard to single out specific steps someone could take to reduce their risk. But researchers have identified some factors that appear to play to a role in the genetic change:
Yes. Often, the goal of blood cancer treatment is curing the condition. But when a cure isn’t possible, there are a growing number of treatments that may put some blood cancers into remission. Remission means the treatment eliminates cancer signs and symptoms for a long time.
Blood cancer and blood cancer treatment can take a toll on your overall health. Here are some suggestions that may help:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Thanks to new and more effective treatments, more people are living with blood cancer than ever before. More than 1 million people in the United States are either living with blood cancer or with a blood cancer that’s in remission. Healthcare providers and researchers are making progress toward finding a cure for some blood cancers. That’s great news, of course. But blood cancer is a serious illness, and learning you have a form of blood cancer is serious business. If you have blood cancer, ask your healthcare provider to explain how blood cancer will affect you, your treatment options and what to expect.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 04/27/2022.
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