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Blood and the Body

A Closer Look at Blood Cancers

Blood, as one of the most vital elements of the body, can present some of our biggest health problems. Blood cancers are perhaps the most devastating of all of these blood conditions. Cancer causes cells to overproduce, often resulting in tumors which disrupt normal functions in the body Guided by their genetic code, normal cells grow, wear out, and are replaced by an orderly process. Tumors occur when a particular kind of cell, for example in the skin, starts to reproduce in an uncontrolled way. Rather than replacing worn out cells, the cells multiply without regard for normal balance. If those cells stay where they are and stay small, the tumor, they form can be harmless, or benign. Sometimes cells are more uncontrolled and invade parts of the body nearby. These are malignant cancers that can also spread to further to other parts of the body.

The body’s infection-fighting system, the immune system, is made up of three parts: blood circulation, lymph circulation and the bone marrow. The blood and lymph circulation systems transport vital infection-fighting cells throughout the body. In addition, the lymph circulation system has a system of nodes distributed throughout the body that is designed to play a major role in detecting and eliminating harmful invaders. Bone marrow produces the blood cells that flow throughout the blood and lymph circulation systems.

Cancers of the blood involve the loss of controlled production of white blood cells. These abnormal cells don’t work well and can crowd out normal blood cells. When this happens, other important body functions, such as fighting infection, can be affected. There are three major types of blood cancers: Leukemia, Lymphoma and Myeloma. Each is diagnosed depending on which kind of blood cell has become cancerous.

Leukemia

In leukemia, the bone marrow starts to make abnormal red blood cells. There are two kinds of leukemia : lymphocytic and myelogenous. Each of these kinds of leukemia has an acute form, that develops rapidly with severe symptoms and a chronic form that develops more slowly over time:

The most common leukemia in childhood is acute lymphocytic leukemia followed by acute myelogenous leukemia. In adults, the two most common forms are acute myelogenous leukemia and chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

Lymphoma

Lymphoma is a cancer that affects the lymph nodes. It makes up half of the blood cancers that occur each year. There are two categories of Lymphoma: Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

Hodgkin’s Lymphoma

Hodgkin’s Lymphoma is a rare type of lymphoma, making up only 1% of cancers in the United States. It is most commonly found in young people between the ages of 15 and 35, but is also seen more commonly after age 55. Hodgkin’s Lymphoma follows a predictable pattern when spreading throughout the body, making it one of the easiest cancers to cure. About 80% of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma patients are able to be cured.

Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma

Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphomas include many different types of lymphomas that are organized depending on how quickly they develop and what type of cells are seen when looking at the cancer under a microscope. Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma primarily affects adults, but does occur very rarely in children. Symptoms and treatment vary significantly depending on the kind and stage of lymphoma.

Myeloma

In myeloma, the cells that produce antibodies called plasma cells become cancerous form tumors in the bone marrow. These cancerous myeloma cells prevent normal production of antibodies, and weaken the infection-fighting system. Because the myeloma cells are in the bone marrow, production of other blood cells is affected as well. Myeloma is usually found in older adults and is considered one of the fastest growing cancers in the western world.

What are the Symptoms of Blood Cancer?

The symptoms of blood cancer are similar across different kinds of cancer. Also, many of these symptoms can be caused by other, less serious conditions. A visit to your doctor will clarify why they are occurring. These symptoms include:

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This article is a NetWellness exclusive.

Last Reviewed: May 04, 2012

Susan   Wentz, MD, MS Susan Wentz, MD, MS
Director, Area Health Education Center
School of Medicine
Case Western Reserve University