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Blood Cancer: What You Need To Know

Did you know that your blood accounts for about 8 per cent of your body weight? Like the other body parts, your blood is susceptible to cancer too, hindering the production and function of blood cells, on top of other diseases. An estimated 1.25 million blood cancers occur globally. Blood cancer can be life-threatening, especially if uncontrollable bleeding or infections occur. Continue reading to find out more about the causes blood cancer, the different types, and their symptoms. 

What is blood?

Our blood plays an important role in supplying the body’s organs with nutrients, oxygens, antibodies, and hormones. It is made up of an almost equal mix of blood cells and plasma. Plasma is the liquid that is responsible for transporting cells, nutrients and waste. There are three types of blood cells, each serving a different purpose: 

  • Red blood cells – transports oxygen to lungs and tissues 
  • White blood cells – protects the body against infection 
  • Platelets – form blood clots and helps to curb bleeding

What is blood cancer, and how does it happen?

Blood cancer affects the normal production and functioning of blood cells. Most types of blood cancer begin in the bone marrow, where blood cells are produced. The stem cells in your bone marrow are responsible for developing into red blood cells, white blood cells, or platelets. 

In most blood cancers, the blood cell development process is disrupted by the uncontrollable growth of an abnormal blood cell type. These cancerous blood cells can prevent your blood from performing important functions like preventing serious bleeding or fighting infections. 

What causes blood cancer?

It is unknown what causes blood cancer, but scientists believe that a combination of environmental and genetic factors can lead to increased risk. For instance, radiation exposure, smoking, and chemicals exposure. Some diseases, such as HIV, are also risk factors. 

What are the different types of blood cancers?

The three main types of blood cancers are: 

Leukaemia

Leukaemia is the most common blood cancer in children. It is caused by the rapid and excessive production of dysfunctional white blood cells. These abnormal white blood cells are unable to support the body in fighting infections. They also negatively affect the bone marrow’s ability to produce red blood cells and platelets. By crowding out the normal blood cells, they also prevent normal cells from functioning normally. 

Lymphoma 

Lymphoma is a blood cancer affecting the lymphatic system, responsible for removing excess body fluids and the production of a type of white blood cell, called lymphocytes. Abnormal lymphocytes become lymphoma cells which multiply and accumulate in your lymph nodes, which is responsible filtering out wasteful substances. Over time, these cancerous cells will eventually impair the lymphatic system such that it is unable to remove waste products from the blood efficiently. 

The most well-researched type of lymphoma is called Hodgkin’s lymphoma – the most common type of blood cancer in adults. 

Multiple myeloma

Multiple myeloma is a type of blood cancer in which the plasma cells in the bone marrow are malignant. It is the second most common blood cancer, affecting more than 100 patients in Singapore per year. Myeloma cells affects the normal production of healthy blood cells, resulting in a weakened immune system that is susceptible to infection. 

What are the symptoms of blood cancer?

Blood cancer symptoms vary by type; here are some common symptoms: 

  • The bone marrow’s inability to produce normal blood cells may result in frequent infections, easy bruising, and anaemia. 
  • Lymphomas may result in swollen but painless lymph nodes 
  • Myeloma generates a substance that results in weaker bones and joint pain 
  • Patients may also suffer from weight loss, fatigue, chills, repeated fevers, or rapid loss of appetite, blood in urine, bleeding nose, or coughing that leads to pain. 

Some blood cancers are chronic, meaning they progress slowly and are not immediately detected. Other types of cancers can be fast-growing, needing immediate attention. 

What should I do next?

If you suspect that you are displaying any of the mentioned symptoms, consult a doctor immediately for a diagnosis and confirmation. With the new and effective treatments, survival rates of blood cancers have improved over time. These treatments include chemotherapy, radiation, targeted therapy, stem cell transplant, gene or cell therapy, and immunotherapy. 

Like all diseases, it’s important to maintain an active lifestyle, a healthy diet, avoid smoking and exposure to radiation and chemicals such as benzene or pesticides. The best investment that you can make is in your health!

Article is written in conjunction with World Blood Cancer Day 2021, held on 28 May.

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