What is Blood Cancer?

Blood cancer is a term that refers to cancers affecting the blood, bone marrow, and lymphatic system. Sadly, blood cancer is one of the highest causes of cancer deaths in Australia, claiming more lives each year than breast cancer and melanoma. 

How does blood cancer occur?

Blood cancers occur when normal blood cell production is interrupted by the uncontrolled growth of an abnormal type of blood cell. This uncontrolled growth can reduce the bone marrow’s ability to produce normal levels of other blood cells, which affects the rest of the body. 

What are the common types of blood cancer?

There are two common types of blood cancer: leukaemia and lymphoma. 

Leukaemia: Leukaemia is caused by the accumulation of excess, abnormal white blood cells. Leukaemias are grouped according to the type of white blood cell that is affected – either lymphoid or myeloid cells. They are then also classified according to the speed with which they can progress. The four main types of leukaemia include:

  • Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (ALL): Happens when the bone marrow overproduces white blood cells called lymphocytes. These abnormal cells overcrowd the bone marrow, and can also spill out to build up in parts of the lymphatic system (the spleen or lymph nodes) and in the liver.
  • Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML): Occurs due to an overproduction of the myeloid white blood cells – sometimes called ‘myeloblasts’. 
  • Chronic Lymphocytic Leukaemia (CLL): This is a slow-growing type of Leukaemia, characterised by its impact on developing B-lymphocytes (also known as B-cells). Normal B-cells produce immunoglobulins (or antibodies) which fight infection and disease, so when they become leukaemic, they are unable to function properly.
  • Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia (CML): Caused by a genetic abnormality in the blood cells, called the Philadelphia (Ph) chromosome. It is a mutation in the DNA that causes the bone marrow to make an enzyme called tyrosine kinase, which in turn causes too many stem cells to become white blood cells.

Lymphoma: Lymphoma occurs when abnormal cells in the body’s lymphatic system grow in an uncontrolled way. The lymphatic system is part of the immune system and is made up of lymphatic vessels, lymph and lymph nodes. The two main types of lymphoma include:

  • Hodgkin Lymphoma: Hodgkin Lymphoma, also called Hodgkin Disease, or Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, is cancer of the lymphatic system. It most commonly starts in the lymph nodes in the neck, but can also start in lymph nodes located in the collarbone, the armpit, the groin and inside the chest.
  • Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma: Lymphomas are most often classified by how the cancer cells look under the microscope. There are three main features of lymphoma; size, shape and growth pattern

Are leukaemia and blood cancer the same?

No, Leukaemia is a type of blood cancer.  Leukaemias are cancers of the white blood cells, which begin in the bone marrow. Leukaemias are grouped in two ways: the type of white blood cell affected – lymphoid or myeloid; and how quickly the disease develops and gets worse.

What are the symptoms of blood cancer?

The symptoms of blood cancer vary by type but may include symptoms such as:

  • Anaemia
  • Bleeding
  • Bruising
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Weight loss
  • Pain in the bones or joints
  • Swollen lymph glands

You can also learn more about blood cancer statistics and prevalence in Australia in this article.

How can you support blood cancer research?

By supporting Australian Cancer Research Foundation, you help back the brilliant ideas needed to find better ways to prevent, detect and treat all types of cancer, including blood cancer. Donate today to help bring us closer to a world without this devastating disease.