What Is Blood Cancer? Symptoms, Diagnosis And Treatment Explained

Blood cancer is the third largest cancer killer in the UK.

02/09/2016 08:40

Every 14 minutes in the UK, someone is diagnosed with blood cancer or a related disorder - that’s almost 38,000 people every year or 104 each day.

It’s estimated that 230,000 people are currently living with blood cancer in the UK, yet many of us do not know the signs and symptoms to look out for.

So to mark Blood Cancer Awareness Month, here’s what you need to know about the disease. 

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 What Is Blood Cancer?

“Blood cancer is really complex, there’s 137 types, but it’s essentially where something goes wrong with the development of blood cells and you get too many affected blood cells crowding out the healthy cells,” Reta Brownlow, head of patient services at Bloodwise explains.

When healthy cells are overcrowded by cancerous cells, the body isn’t able to operate as it usually would. For example, your immune system is not able to fight infections in the usual way and you become unwell as a result.

According to Brownlow, there are three main groups of blood cancer - leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma - and within these there are many subgroups, making 137 types of blood cancer in total.

The complexity of blood cancer means sometimes less understood than other cancers, she explains. 

“As a group of cancers, blood cancers are the third largest cancer killer in the UK, more people die of blood cancer than breast cancer and prostate cancer, but it has such low awareness,” she says.

“There are a lot of the names and it’s quite complicated. Some of these individual cancers are really quite rare and you may not have heard of them unless you’re a specialist in the field.”


Due to the complex nature of blood cancer and the many different strains, symptoms can also vary from person to person.

But Brownlow says there are a few common symptoms to watch out for. 

“The most common signs and symptoms are severe tiredness, overwhelming fatigue, night sweats or fevers, bruising or bleeding, persistent infections that don’t seem to go away, weight loss when you’re not trying to lose weight, painless lumps in your neck and bone pain,” she says.

Brownlow points out that blood cancer is quite hard to identify as these symptoms as “quite general” and could be linked to many other conditions, such as the flu.

But, she advises anyone experiencing these symptoms without an obvious cause to seek medical advice - for example, if you’re having night sweats but you’re not menopausal.


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“Blood cancer can often be diagnosed through a simple blood test,” Brownlow  explains.

“Your GP may do a blood test and that may then come back and you’ll be referred to a haematologist in a hospital.”

Once a patient has been referred to a specialist they will undergo more tests to determine what kind of blood cancer they have. 


The type of treatment a patient receives will depend on the type of blood cancer they are diagnosed with.

“There are some very acute blood cancers where you’ll feel very unwell very quickly that are even diagnosed in accident and emergency and treated almost immediately,” Brownlow says. “Others are very slow to progress.” 

The most common treatment will involve some sort of chemotherapy.

“It is sometimes quite intense and you might be in hospital for several weeks,” she says.

Other patients will instead receive antibody therapy in the form of tablets they can take at home, under the guidance of a hospital. 

Meanwhile those with a blood cancer that develops particularly slowly may be advised to take a “watch and wait” approach to treatment, where they’ll receive regular checkups to monitor symptoms, but no immediate drug-based treatment.

While this approach allows patients to delay treatment until it is truly needed, Brownlow says it can cause some patients to experience feelings of anxiety and frustration.

She reiterates that anyone concerned about blood cancer should talk to a health care professional or call the Bloodwise helpline on 0808 2080888. 


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