What You Need to Know About Blood Cancer
This month, International medical treatment is focussing on blood related diseases and blood cancer is one of the major diseases of the blood that this post will look at keenly, as many people are not aware of blood cancers, yet they contribute to many cancer cases and deaths worldwide.
Over 900,000 people are diagnosed with blood cancers each year worldwide and nearly half of childhood cancers worldwide are cancers of the blood with leukaemia being the most common.
What are blood cancers?
Blood cancers is basically a collective name to refer to cancers that affect the blood, bone marrow and the lymphatic system which comprise of tissues and organs that produce, store and carry white blood cells around the body. Blood cancers therefore, affect the production and function of blood cells and most of them begin in the bone marrow.
Types of blood cancers
There are over 100 types of blood cancers, however, the main types are:
- Leukaemia: It originates in blood-forming tissues and is the most common type of blood cancer especially in children,
- Lymphoma cancer: Develops in the lymphatic system from the lymphocyte cells (white blood cells-white fight infections), and
- Multiple myeloma: Begins in the blood’s plasma cell; a component of the blood that produces immunoglobulin.
What causes blood cancers?
Although the exact cause of blood cancers is unknown, some of the risk factors are:
- Genetic mutation: This is especially the case in multiple myeloma. Genetic mutation occurs when there are changes in genetic information of plasma cells creating abnormalities in cell division which leads to formation of tumors.
- Exposure to radiation and chemotherapy: This mainly occurs as a result of treatment for other cancers.
- Certain blood disorders: Disorders of the blood such as chronic myeloproliferative; a condition that causes blood cells to grow rapidly and abnormally, can also increase blood cancer risk.
- Exposure to certain chemicals: When exposed to some chemicals such as pesticides, the risk for blood cancers may be increased.
- Weak immune system: It can occur due to certain infections like hepatitis C or conditions like down syndrome.
- Smoking and excessive alcohol intake: Smoking is a risk factor for most cancers including blood cancers and excessive consumption of alcohol can also increase blood cancer risks.
- Family history: If a close family member has had a blood cancer, this puts you at a higher risk of developing the same cancer or a related cancer.
Other risk factors for cancers of the blood include;
- Age: Older people are at a higher risk of developing blood cancers.
- Poor diet which comprises of more processed foods and less fruits and vegetables.
Symptoms of Blood Cancer
Most people are not able to identify when they have blood cancers because the symptoms are usually invisible and begin to show at the late stages. These cancers can bring about the following symptoms:
- Frequent vomiting sensation
- Recurrent infections
- Loss of appetite
- Unintentional weight loss
- Sweating a lot at night
- Frequent fatigue or weakness
- Bone or joint pain
- Discomfort in the abdomen
- Shortness of breath
- Feeling itchy on the skin or having skin rash
- Having swollen lymph nodes in the neck, groin or underarm
Diagnosis of Blood Cancer
Some of the tests done to diagnose blood cancers are:
- Complete blood count test: This is done to check the level of various types of blood cells in the blood which can indicate the presence of cancer in the blood.
- Urine and stool tests: This can be used to check for internal bleeding or check for the presence of substances that can indicate presence of cancer in the body.
- Bone marrow biopsy: A sample of bone marrow is taken from the body and tested for the presence of cancer.
- Lymph node surgery: This involves taking out lymph nodes to check for the presence of cancer cells
- Tumor maker test: Done to determine the presence of chemicals made by tumor maker cells which can be detected in the blood.
The choice of appropriate treatment depends on the type and stage of blood cancer, the symptoms, the likelihood of the option being effective, age and general health of an individual. The treatment options for blood cancers include:
- Chemotherapy: Using a combination of anti-cancer drugs to kill cancer cells and prevent them from continued growth and spreading.
- Radiotherapy: Using high energy radiation beams to kill cancer cells.
- Biological therapy: This treatment involves using living organisms that help strengthen the body’s immune system and make it aware of the presence of cancer cells in the body, which in turn helps the immune system to fight the abnormal cells.
- Targeted therapy: This therapy involves using drugs that kill cancer cells without causing damage to normal body cells.
- Stem cell transplant: It involves replacing damaged blood-forming cells or stem cells using healthy stem cells which are harvested from a donor or from the person’s own body.
Prevention of Blood Cancer
There is no specific way to prevent yourself from getting blood cancers, other than reducing the risk factors by:
- Not smoking
- Limiting alcohol intake
- Eating healthy; more vegetables and fruits with fibre and less processed foods especially meat
- Avoiding exposure to radiation
- Avoiding being exposed to chemicals that can lead to blood cancers such as pesticides
- Exercising regularly
- Maintaining a healthy body weight
- Getting regular screening
- Protecting yourself from infections that can lead to blood cancers such as hepatitis