A primer on cancers of the blood
photo by: LMH Health
Virtually everyone has dealt with cancer, whether personally or through an acquaintance or family member. While the disease is common, the National Cancer Institute reports there are more than 100 types of cancer. Whether you have a friend or loved one living with cancer or it’s a disease you’re fighting personally, it’s important to remain optimistic. Research continues to provide advances in treatment, increasing both recovery time and survival rates.
Every type of cancer is different, and each requires different treatments that have different impacts. While it is easy to panic at the thought of a diagnosis, there is good news. In the majority of cases, when caught early, cancer can be very treatable.
Regardless of your diagnosis, one of the most important people in your care team is an oncologist, a doctor specializing in the treatment of cancer. Many oncologists, such as Dr. Jodi Palmer with the LMH Health Cancer Center, specialize in certain types of the disease.
“I primarily deal with leukemia and lymphoma, which are cancers of the blood,” Palmer said. “This specialization allows for me to stay on top of the new advancements and provide the best and most up-to-date treatments to my patients.”
One person in the United States is diagnosed with a blood cancer every three minutes. The National Institutes of Health shares that leukemia, a cancer that affects your blood and bone marrow, is the 10th most common cancer in the U.S. It occurs when white blood cells, which are responsible for fighting infections, form abnormally and compromise your body’s natural defense system. These abnormal cells then enter the bloodstream and spread throughout the body.
When you receive a leukemia diagnosis, your oncologist may classify it as either acute or chronic.
• Acute leukemia is the least common, but most deadly type. The body creates immature blood cells that rapidly multiply and push out healthy mature cells.
• Chronic leukemia is the most common type of leukemia. The cancer is slow growing and may not impact quality of life.
“Sometimes chronic leukemia just lives in your body and does not cause any problems,” Palmer said. “Just because we find it does not mean it should be treated. The cost and emotional and physical impact of treatment may not outweigh the benefit of addressing the leukemia medically.”
Patients with chronic leukemia tend to be asymptomatic, meaning they don’t show any symptoms of the disease, while a common symptom of acute leukemia is fatigue. Both types of leukemia are normally found during routine lab work.
“You can’t diagnose leukemia without lab work,” Palmer said. “An annual physical is also a great way to be screened and learn your risk of developing leukemia.”
While anyone can develop the disease, Palmer explained that you may be at higher risk if you:
• Are over the age of 65.
• Had previous cancer treatments.
• Have certain genetic markers associated with abnormal bone marrow.
• Have a family history of leukemia.
Each case of leukemia is unique to the patient. While most do not require treatment, those that do may use oral targeted therapy, immunotherapy, chemotherapy or a combination of therapies. If patients are candidates for induction therapy, they may be referred to the University of Kansas Cancer Center for a bone marrow transplant.
“Before we even begin discussing treatment options or deciding if it’s something we should just monitor, we do a lot of testing to identify the exact abnormality,” Palmer said. “This allows us to know if or what type of therapy is needed.”
The NIH reports the five-year survival rate for patients with chronic leukemia is over 90%. For those living with acute leukemia, that rate drops to 65%.
“A leukemia diagnosis is not a death sentence,” Palmer said. “At the LMH Health Cancer Center, we have the resources and specialists to monitor and treat it, but most importantly, we can help maintain your quality of life.”
Lymphoma is a cancer that originates from the lymphatic system. This is part of the body’s immune system that helps prevent infection and disease. When blood is pumped, your body sends a small portion of it to the lymph nodes, which act as a filter to destroy anything harmful.
“The lymphatic system is responsible for destroying old or abnormal cells,” Palmer said. “It also releases lymphocytes, which are a type of white blood cell, to fight off any infections.”
It is normal to have some growth of abnormal white blood cells in lymphatic tissues or organs, but your body normally destroys them before they further develop. When your body stops destroying them, those cells are able to enter the bloodstream. The cell mutations often happen quickly and develop into conditions such as Hodgkin’s or non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The type of lymphoma is based on the type of cell that is mutated, such as T, B or Reed-Sternburg cells.
“The most common form of lymphoma is non-Hodgkin’s,” Palmer said. “It accounts for roughly 90% of all lymphomas and normally begins in the lymph nodes.”
As with leukemia, the best screening available for lymphomas is an annual physical. Routine blood work can discover abnormalities in cell count and structure before symptoms are present. Your primary care provider can also identify if you are at a higher risk of developing lymphoma based on factors including age, any autoimmune diseases you may have, family history of lymphoma and previous cancer treatments. Persistent symptoms such as fatigue, night sweats, unintentional weight loss or swollen lymph nodes may also prompt your provider to screen for lymphoma. Treatment ranges from targeted oral treatment, IV antibody infusions to chemotherapy or a combination of these.
“The majority of lymphoma has a high survival rate,” Palmer said. “We work hard to personalize the treatment to the individual and lymphoma to have the best outcomes. In addition to having all of the treatments for lymphoma and leukemia available at LMH Health Cancer Center, we are dedicated to improving access to high-quality care and the quality of life of our patients.”
— Kade Han is the social media manager and digital communication specialist for LMH Health.