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Blood Cancer Awareness Month

September is the UK's first Blood Cancer Awareness Month. With rising diagnosis rates, donating money to cancer research organisations and becoming a blood and bone marrow donor can save the lives of countless people.   2014-09-02
 

The main blood cancer charities: Anthony Nolan, Bright Red, Cure Leukaemia, Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research and Myeloma UK are all teaming up to help raise awareness of blood cancers for the UK's first ever Blood Cancer Awareness Month.

Since early diagnosis can make all the difference when it comes to treatment and prognosis and the signs of the illness can be easily confused with those of less serious conditions, we look at the most common blood cancers, at the signs & symptoms and the treatment available.

Overview

The three main types of blood cancer, leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma, can be life-threatening, partly because they stop the immune system working properly.

When the immune system is badly damaged, death can result from an infection that the  body could otherwise normally fight off.

How common is blood cancer?

Every 20 minutes, someone in the UK is told they have a blood cancer. That’s 70 people a day, 25,000 people a year.

Leukaemia - a type of cancer found in the blood and bone marrow, is caused by the rapid production of abnormal white blood cells. The high number of abnormal white blood cells are not able to fight infection, and they impair the ability of the bone marrow to produce red blood cells and platelets.

  • Acute leukaemia comes on suddenly, progresses quickly and needs to be treated urgently.
  • Chronic leukaemia develops more slowly, over months or years.

There are four main types of leukaemia:

  • Acute myeloid leukaemia (AML). This is most common in over-65s, although people of any age can get it. It affects around 2,000 adults a year in the UK.
  • Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL). This is the most common type of cancer in children. 15–25 year olds also have a higher than average chance of developing it. ALL affects around 400 adults a year in the UK.
  • Chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML). This can affect people at any age, but it’s extremely rare in children. Most people with CML are over 60.
  • Chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL). This is the most common form of leukaemia. Doctors diagnose around 3,000 people with it a year in the UK.

Lymphoma - Lymphoma is a type of blood cancer that affects the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is an important part of the immune system, helping to protect the body from infection and disease. Lymphocytes also live longer than they should. This overload compromises the immune system. Lymphoma can develop in many parts of the body, including the lymph nodes, bone marrow, blood, spleen and other organs. 

The two main types of lymphoma are:

  • Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL). NHL is the sixth most common cancer in the UK. Each year, around 12,000 people are diagnosed with it in the UK, including 90 children. Over half of people who develop NHL are over 65.
  • Hodgkin lymphoma (used to be called Hodgkin disease). This is less common, making up around 20% of all lymphomas, and less than 1% of all cancers in the UK. Around 2,000 people a year are diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. People of any age can get it, but it’s more common in people in their 20s and 70s.
  • Myeloma - Myeloma (also called multiple myeloma) is a blood cancer of the plasma cells. Plasma cells are found in the bone marrow and produce antibodies which help fight infection.

In myeloma, groups of abnormal plasma cells gather in the bone marrow and stop it producing normal blood cells.

Over-65s make up around seven out of 10 cases of myeloma. About 4,700 people are diagnosed with it in the UK each year.

Signs & Symptoms

Almost 1 in 5 patients have blood cancer symptoms at the time of diagnosis.

The following are commonly seen blood cancer symptoms:

  • Exhaustion and weakness
  • Bruising of the skin
  • Bleeding from the gums / rectum.
  • Abnormal bleeding
  • Poor stamina
  • Diminished appetite
  • Weight reduction
  • Recurring infections
  • Abdominal pain
  • Joint pains
  • Enlarged spleen and liver
  • Headaches
  • Lymph nodes in the neck, groin and armpit swell.

Treatment

  • Chemotherapy aids in achieving remission of the disease by destroying cancer cells.
  • Radiation therapy is used for targeted treatment directly at the right area of the body or to shrink a tumour that is compressing a vital body structure.
  • Biological therapy uses special immune system cells and proteins to stimulate the body's immune system to kill cancer cells. Biological agents such as interferons, interleukins, monoclonal antibodies, tumor-necrosis factors and colony-stimulating factors are natural substances found in the body that help alter the way the immune system reacts to cancer.
  • Bone marrow transplants. Used more frequently to treat lymphoma and leukaemia often when all other treatment has been exhausted. The patient is then given an infusion of stem cells from the bone marrow or peripheral blood. These new stem cells can come from a donor’s blood, bone marrow or umbilical cord blood.

Need for Awareness

Money is needed for research, and fund raising is one of the most important things that the charities do. Also patients undergoing treatment for blood cancer often require either blood or platelet transfusions. With cancer diagnosis rates on the increase there’s a huge demand on blood and bone marrow donors, and yet only 4% of the able population donate blood. The NHS Blood and Transplant, Anthony Nolan and Delete Blood Cancer are three organisations that are actively recruiting potential blood and bone marrow donors.

With public support and funding, a blood cancer diagnosis may be devastating but not life-threatening.