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What Is Blood Cancer?

Unlike many forms of cancer that cause tumors to form, blood cancers, also called hematologic cancers, affect the cells that make up the blood, bone marrow, and lymph nodes. Blood is a vitally important fluid that performs a number of functions in the body, including transporting oxygen from the lungs to the cells of the body, providing cells with nutrients, transporting hormones, removing waste products, regulating body temperature and pH balance, and fighting infection.

Blood cancers occur when abnormal blood cells begin growing out of control, interrupting the function of normal blood cells. Most blood cancers develop in the bone marrow where blood is produced.

There are three main types of blood cancers: leukemia, lymphoma, and multiple myeloma. Each of these have various subtypes as well. Blood cancers account for about 10% of all new cancer diagnoses and 9% of cancer deaths in the United States each year.

According to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, more than 178,500 new cases of blood cancer are diagnosed in the U.S. each year, resulting in about 56,800 deaths. In Colorado, there are approximately 2,550 new cases of blood cancer each year.

The prognosis for a patient with blood cancer depends on the blood cancer type and subtype.

Why Come to CU Cancer Center for Blood Cancer 

As the only National Cancer Institute Designated Comprehensive Cancer Center in Colorado and one of only four in the Rocky Mountain region, CU Cancer Center has doctors who provide top-notch, patient-centered blood cancer care, and researchers focused on diagnostic and treatment innovations. In addition, as a National Cancer Comprehensive Network (NCCN) institution, faculty members from the CU Cancer Center are members and often leaders of the guidelines committees that develop the treatment algorithms for every blood cancer used by most blood cancer doctors worldwide.

There are a number of blood cancer clinical trials being offered by CU Cancer Center members at any given time, including leukemia, lymphoma, and multiple myeloma. These trials offer patients additional options to traditional blood cancer treatment and can result in remission or increased life spans.

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As a leader in blood cancer research, the University of Colorado School of Medicine’s Division of Hematology hosts an annual Blood Cancer Boot Camp, a continuing education event focused on providing the most recent updates on blood cancer care to health care workers across the country.

Our clinical partnership with UCHealth has produced survival rates higher than the state average for all stages of Hodgkin lymphomanon-Hodgkin lymphoma, and multiple myeloma.

Hodgkin Lymphoma Cancer Graph

Number of Patients Diagnosed – UCHealth 155 – State of Colorado 140
Number of Patients Surviving – UCHealth 604 – State of Colorado 532
*n<30, 5 Year Survival – (Date of diagnosis 1/1/2010–12/31/2014)

Non Hodgkin Lymphoma Cancer Graph

Number of Patients Diagnosed – UCHealth 690 – State of Colorado 3,350
Number of Patients Surviving – UCHealth 496 – State of Colorado 2,231
*n<30, 5 Year Survival – (Date of diagnosis 1/1/2010–12/31/2014)

Multiple Myeloma Cancer Graph

Number of Patients Diagnosed – UCHealth 232 – State of Colorado 1,257
Number of Patients Surviving – UCHealth 125 – State of Colorado 641
*n<30, 5 Year Survival – (Date of diagnosis 1/1/2010–12/31/2014)

Blood Cancer Types

Different types of blood cells can become cancerous, and the type of cell affected determines the type of blood cancer. They are categorized by looking at the cells under a microscope and other very sophisticated diagnostic tests. Doctors use this information to understand the expected growth pattern and speed, as well as which treatments may work best.

The three primary types of blood cancer are leukemia, lymphoma (Hodgkin and Non-Hodgkin), and multiple myeloma.

Leukemia originates in the blood and bone marrow. It usually occurs when the body creates too many abnormal white blood cells and interferes with the bone marrow’s ability to make red blood cells and platelets, though some leukemias start in other kinds of blood cells.

Leukemia accounts for about one-third of all blood cancer diagnoses and was the sixth most common cause of cancer deaths in both men and women in the U.S. from 2012 to 2016. It is the most common cancer in children and teens, accounting for almost one-third of all childhood cancer diagnoses.

Lymphoma develops in the lymphatic system in cells called lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell that helps the body fight infections. Lymphoma accounts for nearly half of all blood cancer diagnoses.

Hodgkin lymphoma is characterized by the presence of an abnormal lymphocyte called the Reed-Sternberg cell. Hodgkin lymphoma is considered one of the most curable types of cancer. The Reed-Sternberg cell lymphocyte is not present in Non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Multiple myeloma begins in the blood’s plasma cells — a type of white blood cell the forms in the bone marrow. Multiple myeloma accounts for about 18% of all blood cancer diagnoses.

Risk Factors for Blood Cancer 

While the exact cause of most blood cancers is unknown, certain risk factors — behaviors or conditions that increase a person’s likelihood of developing the cancer — have been linked to the disease.

Gender: Men are slightly more likely than women to develop blood cancer.

Age: The risk of most blood cancers increases with age but there are some exceptions. For instance, most cases of acute lymphocytic leukemia occur in people under 20 years old, and Hodgkin lymphoma is most common in adults in their 20’s and 30’s.

Race: The incidence of multiple myeloma is twice as high in Black people as in Caucasians. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is more common in Caucasians.

Geography: Hodgkin lymphoma is most common in North America and northern Europe.

Family history: Close relatives of patients with blood cancer may be at an increased risk for developing the disease, but this is uncommon, and these diseases are typically not inherited.

Genetic syndromes: Some genetic syndromes seem to raise the risk of certain blood cancers. These include Down syndrome, Fanconi anemia, Bloom syndrome, ataxia-telangiectasia, Blackfan-Diamond syndrome, and Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome.

Blood disorders: Certain blood disorders — including chronic myeloproliferative disorders such as polycythemia vera, myelofibrosis, and essential thrombocytopenia — increase the chances of developing leukemia.

Compromised immune system: People with a compromised immune system may have a higher risk of developing lymphoma. This includes patients with conditions such as HIV/AIDS, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and celiac disease, as well as those taking immunosuppressant drugs to prevent organ transplant rejection.

Viruses and infections: Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), known for causing mononucleosis in young adults, may be linked to some lymphomas. Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infection, human T-cell leukemia/lymphoma virus, human herpes virus 8, and hepatitis C virus may also increase risk.

Personal history of monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS): A small percentage of patients with MGUS may be at increased risk for multiple myeloma.

Previous cancer therapy: Certain types of chemotherapy and radiation therapy are considered risk factors for some types of leukemia.

Radiation: Exposure to high-energy radiation or intense exposure to low-energy radiation can increase the risk of some types of leukemia.

Chemicals: Long-term exposure to certain pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, and industrial chemicals (such as benzene) may increase a person’s chances of developing blood cancer.

Smoking: Smoking has been linked to an increased risk of developing leukemia.

Obesity: Research shows that obesity may lead to an increased risk of lymphoma and multiple myeloma.

Dr. Dan Pollyea Breakthrough Story

Latest in Blood Cancer from the CU Cancer Center

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Information reviewed by Dan Pollyea, MD, MS, in February 2022.