Blood Cancer Types, Symptoms, And Treatment Options
By: Jasmine Marfatia
Published On: October 26, 2018
This article will give you a simplified and brief version of everything you need to know about blood cancer.
According to a news report by the New Indian Express, India ranks 3rd in the highest number of blood cancer cases worldwide, just after US and China. Leukemia, the 9th most common cancer in India, claimed 26,000 lives in 2012. A statistic that is even more terrifying is that Leukemia is the most prevalent form of pediatric cancer accounting for 1 out of 3 childhood cancer cases.With blood cancer cases being on the rise, it is important to educate ourselves on this disease, how many types of blood cancers there are, the symptoms, the causes, and treatment options.
What is blood cancer?
Blood is produced in the bone marrow. The three types of blood cells produced by the bone marrow are - red blood cells or RBCs, white blood cells or WBCs, and platelets. They all have different functions that you must know of:
Red blood cells: They are produced through a process called erythropoiesis. The life of an RBC is 120 days. Their main function is to carry oxygen in the blood and remove carbon dioxide.
White blood cells: The main function of white blood cells is to fight infections and pathogens. They protect our bodies from pathogens in 3 ways:
Phagocytosis: consumes the pathogen
Antibodies: by producing antibodies that consume the pathogen
Antitoxins: by producing antitoxins that attack and destroy the pathogen
Platelets: Platelets have the functions of healing cuts and wounds by sticking together, or clotting around the injury.
Most blood cancers are produced in the bone marrow itself. This means that an abnormality in the regular production of blood cells is what can cause blood cancer. The normal cell development may be disrupted by the uncontrolled growth of an abnormal cell, causing cancer.
When this happens, the blood is unable to carry out its usual functions of oxygenation, prevention of infections and diseases, and preventing bleeding.
Types of blood cancerThere are three main types of blood cancer that one may be affected by:
Leukemia is a cancer of the white blood cells. An uncontrolled growth of white blood cells prevents the WBC from performing its functions. The severity of leukemia can be determined by the behaviour of the cancer, which can either be acute or chronic.
Acute leukemia means that it is growing rapidly, and requires immediate medical attention. Chronic leukemia develops relatively slower, but will still put a person’s life at risk. Further, leukemia is divided into four types:
Acute myelogenous leukemia: commonly seen in people over 60 years, but may affect other age groups as well
Chronic myelogenous leukemia: Usually seen in middle-aged adults
Acute lymphocytic leukemia: commonly seen in individuals below the age of 25 years
Chronic lymphocytic leukemia: the most common type of leukemia, especially in people over 60 years
The lymphatic system is responsible for production of immune cells, and also for draining fluids through white blood cells called lymphocytes. The abnormal growth of lymphocytes causing them to become cancerous is called lymphoma. There are two types of lymphomas:
Hodgkin lymphoma: accounts for 12% of lymphoma cases
Non-hodgkin lymphoma: there are 14 types of non-hodgkin's lymphoma, either of B-cells or T-cells
Plasma cells are responsible for producing antibodies that fight and destroy infections and protect us from diseases. The abnormal growth of plasma cells is known as myeloma.
Due to the disrupted growth of plasma cells in cancer sufferers, one’s immune system is compromised, making them weak, and more prone to infections and diseases.
Since myeloma may occur in many areas of the bone marrow, it is also referred to as multiple myeloma.
Symptoms of blood cancerEarly detection of cancer is extremely important to ensure successful treatment. In order to do so, we should be able to recognize certain signs and symptoms, (or a combination of them) that our bodies may present, in case there is a risk of blood cancer.
Surely these symptoms don’t necessarily indicate blood cancer, but it is still important to recognize what the potential symptoms of it may look like.
Anemia, which is a condition that results in low RBC count. It is fairly common, especially among Indian women. Anemia is easily treatable with professionally prescribed medication. However, recurrence of anemia should be checked out.
Myelogenous leukemia is associated with symptoms of bleeding or painful gums, or rashes on the skin, due to the accumulation of the cancerous cells.
Unusual swelling of the belly can take place if the leukemia cells collect in the spleen or liver, causing the abdominal area to look enlarged or swollen.
The buildup of cancerous cells around the surface of bones and joints can cause aches and pains.
Swollen lymph nodes may be identified as small or large lump under the surface of the skin, in areas like neck, underarms, collarbones, and groin. If you do notice anything like it, have a doctor check it.
Other symptoms may include frequent infections, fevers, headaches, loss of appetite and consequent weight loss, itchy skin, and chronic fatigue.
Treatment of blood cancerThanks to several medical breakthroughs over the years, blood cancer is treatable, depending on factors like stage of cancer, behaviour, age, and medical history of the sufferer.
The success rate of treatment of pediatric blood cancers is 70-75% in some cancers, while it is 90-95% in others. Below are some treatment options available for blood cancer, which an oncologist will decide upon.
More commonly known as ‘chemo’, it is the use of drugs to treat or kill cancer cells that have already spread in the body. While radiation and surgery can affect cancerous cells only in a certain part, chemo medication has its effects on the entire body.
It is often used as palliative treatment, when cancer is in its advanced stages, with the goal to reduce pain or improve the patient’s quality of life.
Radio therapy is most commonly associated with cancer treatment. It uses high-energy x-rays, gamma rays, beams, or protons to damage or destroy cancer cells, and prevent them from multiplying or spreading to other parts of the body.
Radiation comes with some side effects, because the rays may also affect other cells in our body. Side effects include fatigue, nausea, hair loss, skin problems, appetite loss, etc.
Targeted therapy is a relatively new technique that uses drugs to attack only cancer affected cells. It is similar to radiation, but has different side-effects because it is more specific in it’s target.
Immunotherapy uses one’s own body and immune system to fight cancer. Certain proteins are given to patients, to stimulate their immune system to work harder in order to fight the cancerous cells. In most cases, it is used in a combination with another treatment.
Bone marrow transplant surgeryThe bone marrow is a spongy tissue found inside bones, and is responsible for production of red blood cells. A bone marrow transplant is a surgical procedure carried out to replace the sufferers damaged bone marrow with a healthy one. This is the most used surgical procedure to tackle leukemia.
The trouble with blood cancer treatment in India
Even though the success rate for treatment of blood cancer is promising, seeing as it has risen over the years, we need to acknowledge certain limitations that are faced by cancer patients in India.
This statistic reveals that the cure rate in India has been lagging as compared to other countries. Several reasons have been stated for this:
Lack of awareness
Poor diagnostic procedures
Outdated equipment and infrastructure, especially in non-metro cities
Limited speciality centres dedicated for oncology
Treatment abandonment due to the financial burden of expensive treatment procedure
With regards to the unaffordability of blood cancer treatment in India, families have started turning to alternative ways of raising money, because they are beginning to realize that insurance and medical loans rarely suffice for treatment of major diseases like that of cancer.
Among them, cancer crowdfunding is proving to be a true blessing for families that don’t have insurance, or are unable to qualify for a bank loan.
Cancer fundraising has allowed people like Sampriti and Navin to get treated without having the burden of debt looming over them. Friends, families, strangers and well-wishers came together to contribute towards their cancer fundraiser and save their lives.
There are many other like them who need our help as well, and cancer crowdfunding may be just the solution for their financial troubles with cancer treatment.
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