About blood cancer
Blood cancer refers to any number of different types of cancer that affect the blood. Our blood is made of many different types of blood cells, which are made in the bone marrow in the middle of our bones. There are three main types of blood cells, including red blood cells (which carry oxygen), platelets (which help blood to clot), and white blood cells (which fight infections).
When blood cancer occurs, normal blood cell development is affected by the uncontrolled growth of an abnormal kind of blood cell. These cancerous cells stop your blood from performing the functions it's supposed to do, like fighting infections or clotting your blood when cut.
There are 3 types of blood cancers:
Leukaemia is cancer of your white blood cells and bone marrow. Bone marrow is the place where blood cells are made in your body. With leukaemia, immature blood cells divide quickly and do not grow into mature cells. These immature cells crowd your bone marrow and prevent it from making normal healthy cells.
Leukaemia can be divided into two main groups depending on how fast the disease develops. Acute leukaemia develops quickly, whereas chronic leukaemia develops more slowly. The word ‘acute’ does not refer to how successful the treatment will be.
The type of leukaemia also depends on which kind of white blood cell is affected. There are many different types of white blood cells. These include myeloid and lymphoid cells. Myeloid cells develop into red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. Lymphoid cells develop into white blood cells called lymphocytes. As a result, there are four main types of leukaemia:
Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL)
Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia is a cancer of the immature lymphocyte cells. These immature lymphocyte cells are called blast cells. The blast cells are overproduced and crowd your bone marrow, preventing it from making healthy blood cells needed by your body. If your white cells cannot work properly, it leads to an increased risk of infection.
ALL is not a very common cancer. About 25 people were diagnosed with it in Ireland in 2009. It is most common in adolescents and young people between the ages of 15 and 25. But it can also occur in adults aged 75 years and over.
Acute myeloid leukaemia (AML)
Acute myeloid leukaemia is a cancer of the immature myeloid cells. These immature myeloid cells are called blast cells. The blast cells are overproduced and crowd your bone marrow, preventing it from making healthy blood cells needed by your body. If your white cells cannot work properly, it leads to an increased risk of infection.
AML is not a very common cancer. About 80 people were diagnosed with it in Ireland in 2009.
Chronic lymphoblastic leukaemia (CLL) is a slow-growing cancer of the lymphoid cells called lymphocytes. These immature lymphocyte cells are called blast cells. The blast cells are overproduced and crowd your bone marrow, preventing it from making healthy blood cells needed by your body. If your white cells cannot work properly, it leads to an increased risk of infection.
CLL is the most common leukaemia in the western world. About 109 people were diagnosed with it in Ireland in 2009.
Chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML)
Chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) is a slow-growing cancer of the immature myeloid cells. These cells divide and grow in an uncontrolled way and are released into your bloodstream as immature blood cells. Immature cells are called blast cells.
The blast cells are overproduced and crowd your bone marrow, preventing it from making healthy blood cells needed by your body. If your white cells cannot work properly, it leads to an increased risk of infection.
CML is a rare cancer. About 31 people were diagnosed with it in Ireland in 2009. It commonly affects middle-aged adults between the ages of 45 and 55 years. CML is very rare in children.
Lymphoma is cancer of the lymphatic system. Generally, lymphoma cells grow in lymph glands (nodes). This causes the glands to get bigger or swell.
There are two types of lymphoma. One is called Hodgkin and the other is non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The difference between the two types depends on the appearance of the lymphoma cells under the microscope. Most lymphomas are non-Hodgkin lymphomas.
Your lymphatic system is made up of tubes or vessels that run throughout your body. It is quite like your blood system and it works with it. It carries a watery, thin liquid called lymph. The lymph fluid has a large number of white blood cells, called lymphocytes. There are two types of lymphocytes; they are called B-lymphocytes and T-lymphocytes. These help to fight infection.
There are bean-shaped vessels along your lymph vessels. These are called lymph nodes. You can feel the nodes in some areas of your body. You might be able to find them in your armpits, your neck and in your groin. You have other nodes that you won´t be able to feel as easily. These are in your chest, your stomach area and in your pelvis. Some body organs also form part of the lymphatic system. These include:
- Bone marrow.
The lymphatic system does some very important jobs. These include:
- Fighting infection.
- Draining fluid that has leaked from the tissues back into the blood stream.
- The lymph nodes filter the lymph fluid as it passes through.
- The spleen filters the blood as it passes through.
About Hodgkin lymphoma
Hodgkin lymphoma can start in any part of your body, but the most common place for it to start is the neck, armpit or chest. The lymphoma cells can sometimes spread to other lymph glands. They can also get into your bloodstream and spread to other organs. Hodgkin lymphoma can also start in an organ, for example in your liver, stomach or bowel.
There were 161 cases of Hodgkin lymphoma diagnosed in Ireland in 2014. The treatment for Hodgkin lymphoma is very successful, even if it has spread to other areas in the body.
For more information, visit our dedicated section on Hodgkin lymphoma.
Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL)
Most lymphomas are non-Hodgkin in type. In fact, there are more than 50 different types of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma can start anywhere in your body but the most common place is your neck, armpit or chest. The lymphoma cells can sometimes spread to other lymph glands. They can also enter your bloodstream and spread to other organs. It is also possible for non-Hodgkin lymphoma to start in an organ, such as your liver, stomach or bowel.
Non-Hodgkin lymphoma affects both men and women. 775 people were diagnosed with it in Ireland in 2014.
Non-Hodgkin can be either low grade or high grade in nature.
Low-grade non-Hodgkin lymphoma means that the cells grow very slowly and may need little or no treatment for months or possibly years.
The most common types include:
- Follicular lymphoma.
- Lymphoplasmacytic lymphoma (also known as Waldenström´s macroglobulinaemia).
- Small lymphocytic lymphoma.
- Nodal marginal zone B-cell lymphoma.
- Cutaneous T-cell lymphoma.
- Extranodal marginal zone B-cell (MALT).
They usually cause symptoms and will need immediate treatment.
The most common ones include:
- Diffuse large B-cell lymphoma.
- Burkitt lymphoma.
- Peripheral T-cell lymphoma.
- Mantle cell lymphoma.
- Anaplastic large cell.
- Lymphoblastic lymphoma.
For more information, visit our dedicated section on Non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Myeloma is a cancer of the plasma cells in the bone marrow, where red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets are made. Plasma cells, which are a kind of white blood cell, are also found in bone marrow. Normally, plasma cells make proteins called antibodies (immunoglobulins) to fight infection and help build up immunity to disease.
With myeloma the plasma cells are abnormal and are called myeloma cells. These myeloma cells usually make a large amount of one type of abnormal antibody. This is known as a paraprotein and can be found in blood and urine.
The paraprotein cannot fight infection properly and can reduce the amount of normal antibodies being made. In the bone marrow the myeloma cells can also leave less room for normal plasma cells to develop.
Myeloma cells can spread from the bone marrow into the harder part of bone and cause damage to bone tissue. The marrow of more than one bone can be affected, sometimes several bones. For this reason, myeloma is often called multiple myeloma.
Each year over 200 people are diagnosed with myeloma in Ireland.
Sometimes myeloma can be picked up on a routine blood test when you have no symptoms at all. Or else you may have symptoms that are vague. But as the condition develops it can affect your bone, blood and kidneys:
Signs and symptoms of myeloma in the bones:
- Bone pain
- Bone fractures
- Numbness and/or pins and needles
Signs and symptoms of myeloma in the blood:
Signs and symptoms of myeloma in the kidneys:
- Hypercalcaemia. This is high levels of calcium in your blood caused by bone cells being destroyed.
- Kidney problems. When paraproteins released by the myeloma cells make your blood thicker, it can affect how the kidney works.
For more information about myeloma, visit our dedicated myeloma section of the website.