Lymphoma Leukaemia Myeloma

Blood cancer - everything you need to know

Blood cancers are the fifth most common type of cancer in the world. Around 1.3 million new cases of blood cancer were diagnosed worldwide in 2020. The good news is that thanks to research, blood cancer diagnosis and treatments are getting better.

What are blood cancers? How are they caused? And how is the research you are supporting helping to start new blood cancer cures?

What is blood cancer?

Blood cancers affect the cells which make up our blood, causing too many, too few, or faulty cells to be produced.

Because many of our blood cells are involved in keeping our immune system working well, having a blood cancer might make it harder for people to detect and fight off infection. Blood cancers can also affect parts of the body involved in producing and transporting blood cells, like bone marrow and the lymphatic system.

Doctors currently recognise that there are at least 100 different types of blood cancer. Each one comes with different challenges, treatments, and outlook.

What causes blood cancer?

Blood cancers develop when the cells involved in producing our blood gather cancer‑causing DNA changes and stop working properly. Researchers are still working out exactly what causes these changes, and how they can lead to blood cancer.

Some DNA changes might be caused by exposure to risk factors in our environment, such as chemicals, or radiation. Other reasons may be genetic, or due to the presence of other health conditions.

DNA changes also occur naturally over time as we age, and our cells become less efficient at picking up and correcting these changes. This is one reason why older people generally have a higher risk of developing any cancer.

For many cases of blood cancer, the underlying cause is not known, but research in this area is already helping us to find out more. We’re proud to be supporting several blood cancer research projects which are investigating how blood cancers begin. 

The three main types of blood cancer are:

Lymphoma

Lymphoma is a type of cancer which affects our lymphatic system. This is a network of vessels which runs throughout our body and helps to carry immune cells like white blood cells, waste, and water. It has an important role in our immune system.

Lymphoma happens when a type of white blood cell called a lymphocyte does not develop properly. The cells begin to divide out of control and clump together to form solid lumps. Tumours most commonly form in the lymph nodes but they can form in other parts of the body too.

Lymphomas are usually classed as Hodgkin lymphoma or non-Hodgkin lymphoma, depending on the type of cell that is affected. Hodgkin lymphoma is more rare in the general population, but is one of the most common cancers diagnosed in younger people.

Leukaemia

Leukaemia is a cancer of white blood cells. It usually begins in the bone marrow when the process of generating new white blood cells goes wrong. Precursor blood cells (called ‘stem cells’) produce too many cells that do not develop fully. This leads to a lack of healthy cells able to work properly. It can also disrupt the balance between white blood cells and other cells in the blood, causing further problems.

There are many different types of leukaemia, which are usually named according to the type of cell they affect, and whether they are chronic or acute.

Acute types of leukaemia develop quickly and can have more severe symptoms at an earlier stage. Prompt treatment is often needed to help prevent rapid progression.

Chronic types of leukaemia tend to develop more slowly, with milder initial symptoms. Treatment is usually still required, but the condition may be managed differently over time.

Myeloma

Myelomas develop when a type of bone marrow cell called a plasma cell begins to divide uncontrollably. Plasma cells are usually involved in producing antibodies, which help our immune system recognise and fight off infection. When myeloma develops, plasma cells do not produce antibodies correctly, and this can affect our ability to recover from infection. The overproduction of plasma cells can also lead to problems with production of other cells in the bone marrow, causing further issues.  

Myeloma is usually called multiple myeloma because it can affect any bone in the body which contains bone marrow involved in blood cell production. Myeloma can develop in different areas of the body at the same time.

Other types of blood cancer

Other more rare conditions such as myeloproliferative disease (also called myeloproliferative neoplasms or myeloproliferative disorders), and myelodysplastic syndrome (also called myelodysplasia) are also classed as blood cancers.

These conditions affect cells of the bone marrow, causing them to produce too many blood cells, or too few healthy blood cells.

Symptoms of blood cancer

People with blood cancer may experience a number of different symptoms. Some are quite general and could be explained by other more common conditions. If you have any symptoms that you are unsure about, it’s always worth talking to your GP.

Some common symptoms of blood cancers include:

  • Heavy sweating at night
  • Persistent or recurrent infections
  • Uncomfortable pain in bones and joints
  • Unusual or frequent bruising and bleeding
  • Looking very pale or greyish coloured
  • Feeling breathless
  • Persistent tiredness, or weakness
  • Other unexplained general symptoms such as weight loss, rash or itchy skin, lumps or swellings

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How is blood cancer treated?

Several different treatments are available to treat blood cancer. Standard treatments like chemotherapy and radiotherapy have been developed over many years, and are still very effective.

Blood cancer researchers have also made huge progress in developing new effective treatments which can work alongside existing treatments. These include:

  • Targeted therapies- which act on specific molecules involved in cancer growth.
  • Immunotherapies (including CAR-T therapy)- these work with our immune system to treat cancer.
  • Stem cell transplants- where blood stem cells which are affected by cancer are replaced with your own or someone else’s healthy new stem cells.

Some blood cancers develop quickly, while others can take years. People with some slowly developing types of blood cancer may not need immediate treatment. They may instead be monitored closely over time.

With your support our researchers are finding out more about the causes of blood cancer and looking for new cures.

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