Types of Blood Cancers

by Jane Ashley

Most people know about cancers that produce tumors – they are the commonly known ones that are most frequently diagnosed – lung, prostate, breast and colorectal. But many patients are more than a little confused when they are diagnosed with blood cancer.

Hematology (1)

You’re likely to be diagnosed by a hematologist. Hematologists specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases of the bone, bone marrow and lymphatic system. Most blood cancers begin in our bone marrow where our blood cells are formed.

The stem cells in our bone marrow mature into red and white blood cells or platelets. But sometimes, normal development is disrupted by uncontrolled development of abnormal blood cells. These abnormal cells stop our blood from doing critical jobs like infection control or clotting. This disruption of blood function is called a blood cancer.

What are the three major types of blood cancer?

Blood cancers fall into three major categories.
Leukemia – when our bone marrow makes abnormal white cells
Lymphoma – when our bodies make abnormal lymphocytes, a specialized type of white cell that fights infection
Myeloma – this is cancer of our plasma cells where the myeloma cells prevent the production of antibodies.

Within each of these broad categories of blood cancer, there are still more types and subsets of each disease. As you’ll learn, blood cancers can appear in many different ways.

What are the types of leukemia?

There are four common types of leukemia and three uncommon types. Most are known by acronyms because their names are a “mouthful” for most patients to remember, much less pronounce.

Older Men Leukemia (1)

• Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL). A rare type of leukemia in adults (only 3,000 people in the U.S. diagnosed with ALL annually), but this is the most common type of leukemia in children, accounting for three-quarters of all leukemia diagnosis.
• Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (AML). This is one of the most common types of leukemia in adults with about 20,000 people diagnosed in the U.S. annually. The average age at diagnosis is 72, and it affects more men than women.
• Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL). CLL is also common, with about the same number of cases as AML. Again, average age at diagnosis is 72, and it’s more common in men.
• Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML). About 6,000 people are diagnosed with CML. Average age is 65 at diagnosis, and once again, more men than women are diagnosed. The cause is interesting – CML is caused when genetic material is exchanged between the #9 and #22 chromosome to produce what is now known as the Philadelphia Chromosome.
• Acute Promyelocytic Leukemia (APL). APL is the aggressive form of AML. It usually occurs in middle age and is caused by a defective gene, a fusion between the PML gene on chromosome 15 and RARA gene on chromosome 17.
• Myeloproliferative Neoplasms (MPN). This rare form of leukemia where the bone marrow makes too many of one type of blood cell – either too many red cells, white cells or platelets.
• Systemic Mastocytosis. This rare cancer occurs when too many mast cells are produced. Mast cells are a type of white cell that help protect our bodies against disease; they are particularly important in fighting infections and helping heal infections.

What Is Lymphoma?

Lymphoma occurs when lymphocytes change or mutate – when mutated, they either live longer or reproduce faster and don’t function normally. Because lymphocytes travel throughout the lymphatic system, cancer may spread to other parts of the body, including our bone marrow, spleen, lymph nodes or other organs. The symptoms are vague – fever, chills, weight loss, no energy or swollen lymph nodes.
It is the most commonly diagnosed of the blood cancers. There are three major types of lymphoma.

• Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma (NHL). NHL is actually a family of similar cancers called lymphoid neoplasms. There are about 90 different types within this family of cancers. They fall broadly into two categories … B-cell lymphomas and natural killer (NK)/T-cell lymphomas. About 80,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed each year.
• Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia/Small Lymphocytic Lymphoma (CLL/SLL). These two types of lymphoma are essentially the same. If most of the cancer cells are circulating in the bloodstream and are in the bone marrow, it is considered CLL. If most of the cancer cells are found in the lymph nodes, then it is categorized as SLL. About 19,000 cases are diagnosed in the U.S. each year. Sometimes, there are no symptoms, and the disease is picked up through routine blood work.
• Hodgkin Lymphoma (HL). Diagnosed in about 9,000 people annually, HL is another variation of lymphoma. Very large cells, called Reed-Sternberg (RS) cells, are the signature cell for diagnosis. Also called Hodgkin disease, it usually occurs in young adults, 15-35 and in adults over 50.

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What Is Myeloma?

Myeloma is also called multiple myeloma – the two terms are interchangeable. Myeloma is cancer of the plasma cells. Myeloma cells adversely affect the production of antibodies causing a patient’s immune system to weaken and prone to infections. They also interfere with the production of red and white cells. An abnormally high number of myeloma cells may cause kidney damage. The myeloma cells may produce a product that causes the destruction of our bones, causing bone pain or even a fracture. Because the myeloma cells are circulating through our bloodstream, these cells deposit in several places – hence, the term “multiple” is often used.

Some 30,000+ people in the U.S. are diagnosed annually. African-Americans are almost twice as likely to develop myeloma as Caucasians. The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society has developed a special initiative to ensure that African-American patients have access to the latest research and treatment for myeloma.

The Bottom Line …

Blood cancer strikes about 175,000 people in the United States every year – that’s one person every three minutes. We may not be as familiar with the names of these cancers; hopefully, now we’ll understand a little bit more about what our fellow WhatNexters are experiencing.

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