September is blood cancer awareness month. The chances are you are not sure what blood cancer is, or how to spot it. But in the UK alone, around 104 people are diagnosed with some form of blood cancer every day.
You may know blood cancer by another name – leukaemia. Perhaps you are more aware of this disease, which we often associate with childhood cancer. However, 64% of leukaemia patients are in fact aged over 65, and 81% of deaths from leukaemia occur in this group.
What is Blood Cancer?
Blood cancer comes in three main forms: lymphoma, myeloma, and the most well-known, leukaemia. Each type of cancer effects a different part of the blood : lymphoma effects the lymphatic system, and myeloma effects the plasma cells in the bone marrow.
The charity Leukaemia Care defines leukaemia as a cancer which begins to form in the blood tissue, such as the bone marrow, and causes the over-production of abnormal white blood cells. The cause of leukaemia, as with most cancers, is not known, although risk is increased by genetic predisposition and chemical exposure. It has been found to be more common amongst older people, although one form of blood cancer known as ALL does occur more frequently in children. Additionally, leukaemia is more common among men.
You may have heard of stem cell research: blood cancer is one reason for this research to take place. This is because all of the different cells in the blood which can be effected by blood cancer (red, white, and platelets) begin as stem cells. Stem cell treatment is often one of the first forms of treatment engaged in cases of leukaemia.
Signs and Symptoms
Symptoms of blood cancer can include pale skin, tiredness, breathlessness, frequent infections and unusual or frequent bleeding such as from the gums or nose, or in the form of heavy periods in the case of women. Patients could experience fever or sweats, be more prone to bruising, and feel weak. This is due to the effects of the cancer on red blood cells which carry oxygen around the body.
In order to be diagnosed with blood cancer, a simple blood test will usually suffice. Speaking to your GP is the first step if you suspect you may be unwell, and they can order the blood test as soon as possible. If issues are found in the blood, other tests, such as chest x-rays may follow to check which type of blood cancer they are dealing with.
In a few cases – around 19% – patients are treated for something else by their doctor before blood cancer is discovered. Symptoms can seem vague and so misdiagnosis can happen fairly regularly. If you are concerned about your health, or that of a friend or relative, discuss these concerns directly with your GP.
Blood Cancer Awareness Month seeks to reduce the occurrences of misdiagnoses of blood cancer and to ensure that all patients are treated quickly and effectively. If you are concerned, you can begin by speaking to your GP.
Advice can also be found on the following charity websites:
Give Blood Save Lives
Blood donation is one way in which we can all join the fight against blood cancer. Becoming a blood donor is easy: visit the NHS website www.blood.co.uk to find out more and to register online as a blood and organ donor.
You can also become a stem cell donor by visiting www.anthonynolan.org. Stem cell donation is a much more invasive procedure than blood donation, but it can result in curing cancer for a blood cancer patient.