What are Blood Cancers?

The major forms of blood cancer are leukemia, lymphoma and multiple myeloma. These cancers are formed either in the bone marrow or the lymphatic tissues of the body. They affect the way the body makes blood and provides immunity from other diseases. These three types of blood cancers all involve an uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells within the blood and bone marrow. Blood carries oxygen and nutrients to all organs of the body, helps in healing and fights viruses, bacteria and other foreign material in the body. Because blood cancers circulate throughout the entire body, treatments are extremely difficult and can require extended inpatient hospitalization.

Types of Blood Cancers

Without proper treatment, each of these types of blood cancers eventually lead to a shortage of normal blood cells causing infection, anemia and excessive bleeding. Too many abnormal white blood cells can impair the function of bone marrow and infiltrate other vital organs. Responses to treatment and survival rates for each of these cancers vary greatly.

Acute Leukemia

Acute leukemia begins with one or a few white blood cells that have a lost or damaged DNA sequence. These cells remain immature in what’s known as a blast form, but maintain the ability to multiply. Because they don’t mature and die as normal cells do, they accumulate and begin to interfere with functions of vital organs, such as the liver, lungs, kidneys and skin. Eventually, they overwhelm the production of healthy cells. Acute leukemias strike suddenly and abnormal cells multiply extremely rapidly, so immediate and aggressive treatment is required. There are several types of acute leukemias, including Mylogenous and Lymphocitic or Lymphoblastic, and different sub-groups within those types. Prognosis for recovery varies with each.


Myeloma is cancer that begins in plasma cells, a type of white blood cell. Myeloma begins when a plasma cell becomes abnormal. The abnormal cell divides to make copies of itself. The new cells divide again and again, making more and more abnormal cells. The abnormal plasma cells are myeloma cells. Myeloma cells make antibodies called M proteins. Myeloma cells collect in the bone marrow. They may crowd out normal blood cells. Myeloma cells also collect in the solid part of the bone. The disease is called “multiple myeloma” because it affects many bones. (If myeloma cells collect in only one bone, the single mass is called a plasmacytoma.)

Chronic Leukemia

Chronic leukemia involves more mature blood cells. They replicate and accumulate more slowly, so the progression of the disease is slower, but it can still be deadly. Experts aren’t sure why this process begins. As with the acute leukemias, there are also different types of chronic leukemias. In most cases, chronic leukemias do not require as aggressive treatment as do acute leukemias because of the slower progression of the disease.


Lymphoma is a cancer of a part of the immune system called the lymphatic system. There are many types of lymphoma. One type is called Hodgkin’s disease. The rest are called non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphomas begin when a type of white blood cell, called a T cell or B cell, becomes abnormal. The cell divides again and again, making more and more abnormal cells. These abnormal cells can spread to almost any other part of the body. Most of the time, doctors can’t determine why a person gets non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

What causes blood cancer?

Scientists don’t understand the exact causes of blood cancers. They seem to develop from a combination of genetic and environmental factors. But, there is no evidence that they are hereditary or caused by any activities. Because the exact cause hasn’t been discovered, there are no specific recommendations to prevent blood cancers, but there are some general guidelines to follow. Exposure to excessive radiation and hazardous chemicals should be limited. The risk for blood cancer may increase for those treated with radiation or chemotherapy for other types of cancers. Studies show that benzene (found in unleaded gasoline), asbestos and pesticides may increase the risk of some blood cancers. When coming in close physical contact with benzene or other hazardous chemicals, take precautions by wearing protective clothing and gloves.

Most people with known risk factors don’t get leukemia, lymphoma or myeloma. And many people with blood cancer have none of these risk factors.

What are the risks of developing blood cancer?

The risk of developing blood cancer generally increases with age, so it occurs more frequently in adults than children. Males are more susceptible than females. It is estimated that about 160,000 Americans will be diagnosed in 2011 with one of the blood cancers, and about 60,000 will die of the disease. Lymphomas account for approximately 54% of new cases, leukemia about 30%, and myeloma about 14%. Less common forms of blood cancers account for about 2% of cases. All blood cancers account for nearly 10 percent of overall cancer deaths.

What treatments are available?

Because the actual causes of blood cancer are still unknown, scientists are trying to identify when and why the body starts producing abnormal cells and how those cells begin invading the body’s blood system. As these questions are answered, the information is used to improve prevention and treatment options. That’s why research into the causes (and cures) is so very critical.

Chemotherapy is usually the cornerstone of treatment. Radiation therapy is used for localized disease or to shrink tumor bulk that is compressing a vital body structure. Bone marrow and stem cell transplants are being done with increasing frequency across the country. Newer treatments, such as targeted therapies that seek and destroy cancer cells, immunotherapy, and biological therapies, are being discovered, and many are already used routinely in combination with other therapies.

Overall survival rates for people with blood cancer have improved in the past 30 years. Still, leukemia causes more deaths than any other cancer among children and young adults under the age of 20.

Leukemia Deaths Under the Age of 20

Did you know that Leukemia accounts for more deaths among children and young adults under 20 than any other form of cancer? My child was only 20 when he was taken by Leukemia. Jeffrey is just one of the reasons why research into the causes and cures for Leukemia is so very critical. Each year, there are 60,000 more. Jeffrey’s Voice funds research that will lead to a cure and gives hope to those fighting today. Will you join us in giving hope?

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