Blood cancers are very complex. There are many different types and subtypes of blood cancer, and every patient and condition is unique.
Blood cancers do, however, share many commonalities. Blood cancers affect the production and function of your blood cells and often start in your bone marrow where blood is produced.
In most blood cancers, the normal blood cell development process—where stems cells in your bone marrow mature and create red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets—is interrupted by uncontrolled growth of an abnormal type of blood cell. These abnormal blood cells, or cancerous cells, prevent your blood from performing many of its important functions, like fighting off infections or preventing serious bleeding. Learn more about blood and its functions.
The Main Types of Blood Cancer
The main types of blood cancer are myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS), leukemia, lymphoma, and multiple myeloma.
Myelodysplastic syndromes are a group of blood disorders in which the bone marrow does not produce enough healthy blood cells. “The blood marrow is not functioning normally in these patients. It really is a pre-leukemia state,” says Ruthee Lu Bayer, MD, director of stem cell transplantation at Northwell Health.
Leukemia is a type of blood cancer that’s found in the blood and bone marrow. It’s caused by rapid production of abnormal white blood cells. “The abnormal cells will crowd out the bone marrow and affect the production of healthy cells,” says Dr. Bayer.
These abnormal white blood cells can’t fight infection like healthy white blood cells do, and the high number of these abnormal cells make it difficult for the bone marrow to produce red blood cells and platelets. Red blood cells are crucial for dispersing oxygen and nutrients throughout the body, and platelets help the blood clot when you’re injured.
Lymphoma is a type of blood cancer that affects the lymphatic system, which removes excess fluids from your body and produces immune cells.
In lymphoma, abnormal lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell) divide rapidly, but instead of just circulating throughout the blood, they begin to collect in your lymph nodes and other tissues.
Multiple myeloma is a cancer of the plasma cell, which is a type of white blood cell. “Normally that white blood cell is making antibodies that help us to fight off infection,” says Dr. Bayer. Someone with multiple myeloma, however, produces abnormal plasma cells that divide rapidly and crowd out the bone marrow, she says.
“[The abnormal plasma cells] make abnormal antibodies which will ultimately affect the immune system and patients can have recurrent infections,” says Dr. Bayer.
Treatment for Different Blood Cancer Types
Treatment for blood cancer depends on many factors, including the type of cancer you have, your age, how fast the cancer is progressing, and where the cancer has spread. To get the best treatment outcome, patients should be evaluated by a hematologist-oncologist that specializes in their specific condition. Here are important questions to ask your doctor about blood cancer treatment.
“Thirty years ago there were far less patients ultimately achieving the cure and long-term survival with various types of blood cancer,” says Dr. Bayer. “Now with newer treatments and better treatments, patients are surviving and living normal lives.”