Blood cancer refers to a group of cancers that form when blood cells do not develop properly. These abnormal blood cells can grow and multiply uncontrollably, reducing the ability for the body to produce normal blood cells. When this happens, it changes the way the body functions.
These abnormal blood cells can also spread to other parts of the body including the lymph glands, liver, kidneys, spleen, and lungs, which further impacts the way the body works.
There are several types and sub-types of blood cancer. The most common are:
- leukaemia – develops in bone marrow
- lymphoma – develops in the lymphatic system
- myeloma – develops in plasma cells.
Other rarer types of blood cancer include myelodysplasia (MDS), myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPN) and childhood blood cancers such as juvenile myelomonocytic leukaemia (JMML).
The symptoms of blood cancer, how it is diagnosed and staged, types of treatment and potential side effects are different depending on the type of cancer.
Blood carries oxygen and important nutrients to the organs and tissues of the body. It also helps remove waste products and fight infections. The blood is made of different types of cells including:
- red blood cells – carry oxygen around the body
- white blood cells – help kill bacteria and protect the body from infection
- platelets – stick together to form clots that stop bleeding.
Most blood cells are made in bone marrow – the spongy part in the middle of certain bones. Blood cells begin as stem cells and enter the bloodstream once they have matured. The heart pumps blood around the body through blood vessels.
How common are blood cancers?
Blood cancers are the third biggest cause of cancer death across Australia, claiming more lives each year than breast cancer or skin cancer.
Each year in Australia, about 4,500 people are diagnosed with a form of leukaemia. About 6,400 people are diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma and about 780 people are diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma.
Myeloma is not a common disease. About 1,900 people in Australia are diagnosed with myeloma each year.
Being told you have blood cancer can feel very overwhelming. If you or your loved ones have any questions, call 13 11 20 to speak to an experienced cancer nurse.
Types of blood cancer
Different types of blood cancer affect different types of cells in the blood. The three main types of blood cancer include:
Leukaemia is cancer that develops in the bone marrow, which is where white blood cells are made.
Most commonly, leukaemia occurs when white blood cells develop abnormalities and multiply in an uncontrolled way. These abnormal white blood cells are called leukaemia cells, and they behave differently to normal blood cells.
Leukaemia is named after the type of white blood cell affected, and whether it grows quickly (acute) or slowly (chronic). It can affect both adults and children. There are four main types of leukaemia:
- acute myeloid leukaemia (AML)
- acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL)
- chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML)
- chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL).
Understanding Acute Leukaemia
Download the Understanding Acute Leukaemia booklet from Cancer Council NSW to learn moreDownload now
Understanding Chronic Leukaemia
Download the Understanding Chronic Leukaemia booklet from Cancer Council NSW to learn moreDownload now
Lymphoma is cancer that develops in the lymphatic system.
The lymphatic system is part of the immune system, which defends the body against disease and infection. It is a network of vessels throughout the body, which carry a clear fluid called lymph. Organs including the spleen, thymus and bone marrow are also part of the lymphatic system.
Lymph is made of white blood cells called lymphocytes. These cells carry antibodies that destroy bacteria and viruses that make people sick. There are two types of lymphocytes, B-lymphocytes and T-lymphocytes. These cells protect the body from infections by producing antibodies and attacking organisms such as bacteria and viruses.
Lymphoma occurs when lymphocytes change and grow in an uncontrollable way and join to form a lump or tumour. The most common place for this to happen is in the lymph nodes, but it can also happen in other parts of the body.
There are more than 80 different sub-types of lymphoma, which are commonly grouped as either:
- Hodgkin lymphoma, or
- Non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Types of lymphoma are also described according to whether they affect B-lymphocytes or T-lymphocytes, and whether they are slow growing (indolent) or fast growing (aggressive). Approximately 85% of lymphomas affect B-lymphocytes.
Understanding Hodgkin Lymphoma
Download the Understanding Hodgkin Lymphoma booklet from Cancer Council NSW to learn moreDownload now
Understanding Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma
Download the Understanding Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma booklet from Cancer Council NSW to learn moreDownload now
Myeloma is cancer that develops in plasma cells – a type of white blood cell. Plasma cells produce proteins called antibodies that help repair damaged cells and defend the body against disease.
Plasma cells can change and become cancerous. When this happens, these cells become known as myeloma cells, and they can multiply and join to form a lump or tumour. This often happens in the bone marrow and on the surfaces of different bones in the body.
Myeloma can cause the bones to become brittle and break more easily. It can also affect how your kidneys work and weaken the body’s immune system, which can make it easier for the body to bruise, bleed and get sick.
Download the Understanding Myeloma booklet from Cancer Council NSW to learn moreDownload now
Your guide to best cancer care
A lot can happen in a hurry when you’re diagnosed with cancer. The guides to best cancer care can help you make sense of what should happen. It will help you with what questions to ask your health professionals to make sure you receive the best care at every step.
Your treating team
The health professionals you will see depends on the type of blood cancer you have. Your doctor may discuss your treatment options with other health professionals who specialise in different aspects of your care, at what is known as a multidisciplinary team (MDT) meeting.
These health professionals can include your GP, cancer specialist, nurse, physiotherapist, counsellor and social worker, among others.
Making treatment decisions
Sometimes it is difficult to decide on the type of treatment to have. You may feel that everything is happening too fast, or you might be anxious to get started.
Check with your specialist about how quickly you should begin treatment, as it may not affect the success of the treatment to wait a while. Ask them to explain the options and take as much time as you can before deciding.
Know your options
Understanding the type of blood cancer you have, available treatments, possible side effects and any extra costs can help you weigh up your options and make a well-informed decision.
Check if the specialist is part of a multidisciplinary team and if the treatment centre is the most appropriate one for you – you may be able to have treatment closer to home, or it might be worth travelling to a centre that specialises in a particular treatment.
Record the details
When your doctor first says you have cancer, you may not remember everything you are told. Taking notes can help, or you might like to ask if you can record the discussion. It is a good idea to have a family member or friend go with you to appointments to join in the discussion, write notes or simply listen.
If you are confused or want to check anything, it is important to ask questions. This will help you make an informed choice about your treatment and care. You may want to ask some of the questions below when meeting with your specialist:
- What type of blood cancer do I have?
- Has the cancer spread? If so, where to? How fast is it growing?
- Can you explain the results of the tests to me?
- I’m thinking of getting a second opinion. Can you recommend another specialist?
- What are my treatment options?
- How long will the treatment take? When will treatment start?
- What is the aim of the treatment?
- How will I know if the treatment is working?
- Are there any out-of-pocket expenses not covered by Medicare or my private health cover? Can the cost be reduced if I can’t afford it?
- Are there any clinical trials being done for this cancer that I could join?
- What are the risks and possible side effects of each treatment?
- How will these be managed?
- Will I have a lot of pain? If so, what will be done about this?
- Will treatment impact my ability to have children?
- Are there any complementary therapies that might help me?
- How often will I need check-ups after treatment?
- If the cancer returns, how will I know? What further treatment could I have?
- After treatment, how do I manage fear of the cancer coming back?
- Who can I talk to if I feel worried or depressed after treatment?
- Where can I get help for how I am feeling? How do I know if what I am feeling is a typical reaction? When should I think about getting some professional support?
- What are common emotional challenges with blood cancer?
- Will a multidisciplinary team (MDT) be involved in my care? Does the MDT include a psychologist and/or social worker?
- How can I see a social worker at my treatment hospital?
- How can I find a professional counsellor or psychologist? Should I see a psychiatrist?
- How can I connect with other people affected by cancer?
- Who can I talk to about my finances, legal matters and other practical concerns?
- Who can support my family or carers?
- Who can I call after hours if I need immediate emotional support?
- Should I consider medicines to support my emotional health?
- Are there any apps, podcasts or online programs that might be helpful?
Consider a second opinion
You may want to get a second opinion from another specialist to confirm or clarify your specialist’s recommendations or reassure you that you have explored all your options. Specialists are used to people doing this.
Your GP or specialist can refer you to another specialist and send your initial results to that person. You can get a second opinion even if you have started treatment or still want to be treated by your first doctor. You might decide you would prefer to be treated by the second specialist.
It’s your decision – you have the right to accept or refuse any treatment you are offered. You may also want to discuss your decision with your treatment team, GP, family, and friends.
Join a clinical trial
Your specialist may suggest you take part in a clinical trial. Clinical trials are conducted to test new or modified treatments and ways of diagnosing disease to see if they are better than current methods.
Over the years, trials have improved treatments and led to better outcomes for people diagnosed with cancer. You may find it helpful to talk to your specialist or GP, or to get a second opinion. If you decide to take part in a clinical trial, you can withdraw at any time.
Caring for someone with blood cancer
Becoming a carer for someone with blood cancer can be sudden or it may be a gradual process. It’s natural to be worried about the demands that come with a caring role and the impact this might have on your life.
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The information on this webpage was produced by Cancer Council Victoria (2021). This webpage was last updated in December 2021.