Blood cancer: signs, symptoms and diagnosis


Would you be able to spot the signs of blood cancer? Haematologist Dr Gerard Robbins explains what to look for.

Medically reviewed by Dr Juliet McGrattan (MBChB) and words by Becky Fletcher

Cancer represents a major healthcare concern, both in the UK and globally. Every two minutes someone in the UK is diagnosed with a form of cancer. However, whilst we are more aware of the warning signs of breast and bowel cancer, awareness of the early signs of blood cancer development – the fifth most common cancer in the UK – remain unknown.

Every 14 minutes in the UK, someone is diagnosed with blood cancer: that’s almost 38,000 people every year, or 104 each day. Blood cancer is an umbrella term for cancers that affect the blood, bone marrow and lymphatic system, of which there are three main groups: leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma.

To improve incidence and survival rates, we need improved awareness in identifying the early symptoms. With over 1oo different types of blood cancer and related disorders, the symptoms widely vary from person to person so it can be a difficult disease to identify.

We spoke to Dr Gerard Robbins, Consultant Haematologist at BMI Mount Alvernia Hospital in Guildford, to explain what the symptoms to watch out for are, the role of lifestyle factors, and identify what makes us more at risk.

What is blood cancer?

“This is a general term covering many different types of cancers affecting the blood, bone marrow and immune system,” Dr Robbins explains.

“We currently recognise around 150 specific types. Leukaemia, lymphoma, myeloma, chronic myeloproliferative diseases and myelodysplastic disorders are the most common groups.”

Blood cancer symptoms

What are the symptoms of blood cancer? According to Dr Robbins, symptoms vary but may include:

  • extreme tiredness
  • fevers
  • drenching night sweats
  • unexplained weight loss
  • persistent (more than 4 weeks) swelling of lymph nodes
  • excessive bruising or bleeding
  • bone pain
  • new or different backache
  • recurrent or unusual infection

He adds, “It is important to remember that all of these symptoms can have entirely ‘benign’ causes, which means they aren’t due to cancer. Talk to your GP if you are concerned.”

About three out of 10 patients with myeloma are diagnosed at a time when they have no symptoms. The most common symptom, if you do have any, is back pain which is more severe and lasts longer than normal back pain.

Blood cancer causes

What are the causes of blood cancer? Dr Robbins says: “In many cases the short answer is: ‘We don’t know’. In a few types, a specific cause has been identified. In many cases we know of multiple factors which increase the risk including age, genetic factors, chronic infection or inflammation, suppression of the immune system, previous exposure to chemotherapy and radiation, and pre-existing blood disorders (including other blood cancers). Lifestyle factors do not play a large role in the cause, but are extremely important through their impact on coping with the cancer and its treatment.”

Who is high risk?

“This very much depends on the individual type of blood cancer. With the exception of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia which is one of the commonest cancers in children, in general the risk of developing blood cancer increases with increasing age. Men are slightly more affected than women. There are some differences between different racial groups which might be due to both genetic and environmental factors.”

Blood cancer diagnosis

How is blood cancer diagnosed? “It is important to take a full medical history and carry out a physical examination. Blood tests, bone marrow biopsy and scans are often required. Biopsy of an affected lymph node or organ is sometimes necessary, especially in suspected lymphoma. We are able to arrange very sophisticated investigations such as molecular profiling. Haematology has been a pathfinder for use of these tests.”

Blood cancer treatment

What treatments are available for blood cancer? “We are very fortunate that there has been huge progress in the treatment of blood cancers in the last 50 years. For some it is best to simply monitor for a period (sometimes years) before starting treatment. Many cancers are highly treatable with a variety of drugs including chemotherapy. Radiotherapy can be extremely helpful in specific situations. Unfortunately, in spite of all this progress, many blood cancers remain incurable at present. Rarely, very high dose chemotherapy followed by stem cell transplantation will be appropriate.” Treatments will be arranged and monitored at specialist cancer centres in the UK.

Net Doctor


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