Could you spot the signs of blood cancer?

Could you spot the signs of blood cancer?

Photo credit: stefanamer - Getty Images
Photo credit: stefanamer – Getty Images

From Netdoctor

Blood cancer is the fifth most commonly diagnosed cancer in the UK, accounting for around 10{09c3c849cf64d23af04bfef51e68a1f749678453f0f72e4bb3c75fcb14e04d49} of all cancers diagnosed each year. Every 14 minutes in the UK, someone is diagnosed with blood cancer: that’s almost 38,000 people every year, or 104 each day. It is our third biggest cancer killer, and yet misunderstandings about the signs and symptoms of this cancer exist.

To improve incidence and survival rates, we need improved awareness in identifying the early symptoms. With over 1oo different types of blood cancer and related disorders, the symptoms widely vary from person to person so it can be a difficult disease to identify.

We spoke to Dr Gerard Robbins, Consultant Haematologist at BMI Mount Alvernia Hospital in Guildford, to explain what the symptoms to watch out for are, the role of lifestyle factors, and identify what makes us more at risk.

What is blood cancer?

Blood cancer affects the blood, the lymphatic system, and the bone marrow and there are a number of different types. Myelomas and leukaemia occur when there are too many abnormal cells in the bone marrow (where blood cells are made) and the blood. With lymphomas there are typically increased numbers of cells in the lymph glands, causing them to be enlarged but other organs can be affected here too. How blood cancer affects you will depend on the exact type of cancer and which blood cells are affected.

Types of blood cancer

There are three main types of blood cancers:


Myeloma is a cancer that affects cells in the bone marrow – where blood is manufactured – called plasma cells. As these cancerous plasma cells increase and fill the bone marrow, normal blood cell production is significantly reduced and this can lead to anaemia, bleeding problems and infections. More advanced symptoms include significant bone pain and fractures.


Leukaemia is a cancer that affects the cells in bone marrow (the part of the body involved in making blood cells). These cancer cells then move into the blood to cause symptoms and there are several types of leukaemia, many of which affect the white blood cells.


Lymphoma is a cancer of cells in the lymphatic system and is divided into two types:

Blood cancer symptoms

What are the symptoms of blood cancer? According to Dr Robbins, symptoms vary but may include:

He adds, “It is important to remember that all of these symptoms can have entirely ‘benign’ causes, which means they aren’t due to cancer. Talk to your GP if you are concerned.”

About three out of 10 patients with myeloma are diagnosed at a time when they have no symptoms. The most common symptom, if you do have any, is back pain which is more severe and lasts longer than normal back pain.

Blood cancer causes

What are the causes of blood cancer? Dr Robbins says: “In many cases the short answer is: ‘We don’t know’. In a few types, a specific cause has been identified. In many cases we know of multiple factors which increase the risk including age, genetic factors, chronic infection or inflammation, suppression of the immune system, previous exposure to chemotherapy and radiation, and pre-existing blood disorders (including other blood cancers). Lifestyle factors do not play a large role in the cause, but are extremely important through their impact on coping with the cancer and its treatment.”

Who is high risk?

“This very much depends on the individual type of blood cancer. With the exception of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia which is one of the commonest cancers in children, in general the risk of developing blood cancer increases with increasing age. Men are slightly more affected than women. There are some differences between different racial groups which might be due to both genetic and environmental factors.”

Photo credit: Unsplash/National Cancer Institute
Photo credit: Unsplash/National Cancer Institute

Blood cancer diagnosis

It is important to take a full medical history and carry out a physical examination. Blood tests, bone marrow biopsy and scans are often required. Biopsy of an affected lymph node or organ is sometimes necessary, especially in suspected lymphoma. We are able to arrange very sophisticated investigations such as molecular profiling. Haematology has been a pathfinder for use of these tests.

Blood cancer treatment

We are very fortunate that there has been huge progress in the treatment of blood cancers in the last 50 years. For some it is best to simply monitor for a period (sometimes years) before starting treatment. Many cancers are highly treatable with a variety of drugs including chemotherapy. Radiotherapy can be extremely helpful in specific situations. Unfortunately, in spite of all this progress, many blood cancers remain incurable at present. Rarely, very high dose chemotherapy followed by stem cell transplantation will be appropriate. Treatments will be arranged and monitored at specialist cancer centres in the UK.

Last updated: 10-07-2020

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