Blood Cancer

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The medical term for blood cancers is hematologic malignancies (pronounced HEE-muh-tuh-LAH-jik muh-LIG-nun-sees). This group of cancers develops in the tissues that create blood, such as your bone marrow. They also may develop in your lymph nodes or glands, which help protect you from infection.

Treating Hematologic Malignancies at the Swedish Cancer Institute

The Swedish Cancer Institute has a team of specialists who focus specifically on finding a cure for hematologic malignancies. These specialists are recognized nationally and internationally as experts in caring for patients with these types of cancer. They have access to leading-edge diagnostics and some of the most sophisticated treatments. They also conduct clinical research that leads to novel therapies that may not be available anywhere else in the region.

Additionally, cancer specialists at clinics throughout the Swedish Cancer Institute Network are able to diagnose and treat patients with hematologic malignancies. That means that patients with hematologic cancer may receive care close to home or work.

Because Swedish Cancer Institute cancer specialists participate in clinical trials, the treatment plans for our cancer patients may include investigational medications that are only available through a clinical trial. Having access to clinical trials helps ensure that each of our patients receives the best treatment options for his or her particular type of cancer.

Types of Hematologic Malignancies

There are many different kinds of hematologic malignancies, including:

  • Acute leukemias, such as
    • Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (also known as ALL; affects lymphoid cells and grows quickly)
    • Acute myeloid leukemia (also known as AML; affects myeloid cells and grows quickly)
  • Chronic leukemias, such as
    • Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (also known as CLL; affects lymphoid cells and grows slowly)
    • Chronic myeloid leukemia (also known as CML; affects myeloid cells and grows slowly)
  • Multiple myeloma (affects white blood cells)
  • Myelodysplastic Syndromes (also known as MDS; the bone marrow does not make enough platelets, red and white blood cells)
  • Myeloproliferative Disorders (the bone marrow makes too many platelets, red and white blood cells)
  • Hodgkin Lymphoma (also known as Hodgkin’s lymphoma; affects white blood cells)
  • Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma (also known as Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma), such as
    • Small lymphocytic leukemia (also known as SLL; affects B-lymphocytes in immune system)
    • Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (also known as CLL; affects lymphoid cells and grows slowly)
    • Diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (also known as DLBCL; develops from B-cells in lymph system)
  • AIDS-Related Lymphoma (patients with HIV are at greater risk of developing lymphoma)
  • Cutaneous T-Cell Lymphoma (also known as CTCL; affects the skin, and possibly the blood, lymph nodes and other internal organs)

There are other forms of non-cancerous blood disorders, including:

  • Low white blood cells (leukopenia)
  • Low red blood cells (anemia)
  • Low platelets (thrombocytopenia)
  • Blood clots
  • Bleeding disorders such as hemophilia and von Willebrand disease
  • Sickle cell anemia
  • Pregnancy-related blood disorders

Risk Factors for Hematologic Malignancies

Hematologic malignancies can occur at any age; however, they are most common in adults who are 60 years old or older. Your risk may be greater if you have been exposed to benzene or radiation, or you have previously had certain types of treatment for cancer. Diseases that impact your immune system, such as HIV, and exposure to some chemicals may increase your risk.

Symptoms of Hematologic Malignancies

There are many symptoms associated with hematologic malignancies that are also common with other medical conditions. So, it is always best to talk with your doctor about your symptoms so you can undergo the appropriate testing and receive an accurate diagnosis. Typically, patients with hematologic malignancies experience more than one of the following symptoms:

  • Fatigue
  • Drenching night sweats
  • Fever
  • Weight loss
  • Generalized itching
  • Breathlessness
  • Easy bruising
  • Bleeding that is hard to control
  • Frequent infections
  • Bone pain
  • Pain after drinking alcoholic beverages
  • Abdominal pain
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Enlarged spleen

Diagnosing Hematologic Malignancies

Generally, hematologic malignancies are diagnosed using a microscope to study the cells in your blood, lymph, bone marrow or lymph nodes.

To begin the diagnostic process, your doctor will order a complete blood test. If your doctor suspects a type of blood cancer, you may be scheduled for a biopsy of your bone marrow or a biopsy of an enlarged lymph node. The samples will be sent to a lab where a pathologist (a doctor who has special training in the analysis of fluid and tissue) will look at them under a microscope and determine if cancer is present.

Gene Sequencing

Through the Swedish Cancer Institute's Personalized Medicine program, the specialists in our Hematologic Malignancies program are now able to utilize the newest, most advanced science, called gene sequencing.

Gene sequencing is a laboratory procedure. Using high-tech equipment, the chromosomes and DNA in the cancer cells are studied and the specific type of abnormality that is causing the cancer is identified. Research has shown that some abnormalities respond better to certain kinds of treatment, so gene sequencing allows your doctor to create the ultimate customized treatment plan.

Gene sequencing is used for many types of cancer, but it is particularly important with hematologic malignancies because there are usually many different mutations that cause leukemia. Knowing which mutation is causing your cancer is a powerful tool that helps your doctor prescribe the best treatment right from the start.

Treating Patients with Hematologic Malignancies

Treating hematologic malignancies will depend on the type of cancer you have and how far it has progressed. It also may depend on the cancer’s genomic profile. Treatment may include:

  • Chemotherapy: using anti-cancer drugs to kill the cancer cells
  • Immunotherapy: using the patient’s own immune system to fight cancer, and reduce the risk of developing a resistance to treatments and having the cancer come back
  • Atologous hematopoetic stem-cell transplant: gathering healthy cells from the patient before treatment, then returning the cells to the patient via IV after treatment to help rebuild the patient’s immune system

Treating benign blood disorders may involve coagulation and hematology laboratory monitoring, collaboration with other medical specialties, and therapeutic agents to improve outcome and quality of life.

Learn more in this series of three videos (see top right icon in video player to view video playlist):

Clinical trials

The Swedish Cancer Institute participates in numerous clinical trials of new drugs and treatment protocols that are not yet available to the public. If you are eligible for a clinical trial, your doctor may talk with you about including it in your treatment plan.