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8 Things You Should Know About Blood Cancers

September 29, 2020

Every three minutes, someone in the United States is diagnosed with a blood cancer. Despite its prevalence, many people are unfamiliar with the different types of blood cancer, what they look like and how they can affect those who are diagnosed.

During Blood Cancer Awareness Month, we spoke with Eduardo Fernandez, MD, a medical oncologist at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center – Washington Township, about what everyone should know about blood cancers.

1. There are many types of blood cancers.

Blood cancer does not look the same for every patient. The three main types of blood cancer are leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma.

Leukemias start in blood cells and within bone marrow, lymphomas start in the lymphatic system, and myelomas originate within white blood cells in bone marrow. Blood cancers can also be acute—have a sudden onset and be aggressive—or chronic, meaning they progress slowly and can be easily managed.

2. Symptoms can present on a large spectrum.

Just as there are many different types of blood cancer, symptoms can vary widely as well. “Chronic cancers can be present in the body for years without any symptoms at all,” Dr. Fernandez explains. These cancers are typically discovered as a result of a routine blood test, where blood counts are either too low or too high. If this is the case, you would be referred to a hematologist to run more tests to diagnose your specific illness.

For acute cancers, symptoms will typically appear suddenly. Dr. Fernandez says, “It’s important to keep in mind that these symptoms will typically be severe, unexplained and consistent.” Symptoms can include: incapacitating fatigue, high and consistent fever, sudden unexplained weight loss, severe night sweats, unexplained bruising and sinus infections.

3. Blood cancers can affect a variety of people.

While advanced age has been linked to an increased prevalence of blood cancer, there is a multitude of risk factors that vary for each individual, Dr. Fernandez explains: “We should ask the questions: Are there external environmental factors or genetic predispositions that may put this person at greater risk for developing a blood cancer? Or is this a random event?”

Many times, blood cancer is a random event that occurs when people get older. But there can be genetic risk factors, such as an immediate family history of a hematological disorder, like chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Those who work in the farming and petroleum industries and are exposed to harmful chemicals like phosphates and benzenes can have an increased risk. There are also viral illnesses connected with blood cancers, such as hepatitis B and C, and other rare illnesses that aren’t common in the United States.

4. Sometimes waiting is part of treatment.

If you’re diagnosed with a blood cancer, managing it without treatment may be a part of your care. “Oftentimes we find blood disorders and monitor them, but don’t actively treat them unless it’s necessary,” says Dr. Fernandez. But this doesn’t mean that you’re free to avoid the doctor until symptoms begin to appear or worsen. These diseases require you to be vigilant in following up with your doctor or specialist frequently.

5. Treatments for blood cancers can vary.

If you’re at a stage when you need treatment, there are numerous options available, based on the type of blood cancer you’ve been diagnosed with. “We’ve progressed in being able to find mutations that we can target specifically, and we select treatments based on the mutational change that’s causing the growth of these abnormal cells,” says Dr. Fernandez. Many times, treatment will involve chemotherapy, but there are also immunotherapies and biologic therapies used to treat blood cancers.

6. Preventive care is key to catching cancer early.

The biggest risk factor for developing a blood cancer is age, which is not something that you can control. You can, however, be diligent about routine visits to your primary care physician. “When you visit your doctor, you must be honest about your health and anything going on,” Dr. Fernandez advises. Your doctor may not be able to detect a swollen lymph node if you don’t tell them. And not all tests are routine, so if you suspect you’ve been exposed to an illness like hepatitis, it’s important to ask for a blood test, rather than assume you doctor will detect it on their own.

7. If you’re diagnosed with cancer, don’t panic.

Many people will experience extreme anxiety if they’re referred to a hematologist for a cancer diagnosis. But blood cancer often needs to be extensively investigated before arriving at an official diagnosis and treatment plan. “It may not be as bad as you think,” says Dr. Fernandez. “It all depends on the type of blood cancer you’ve been diagnosed with, but the hematologist will know if you need an emergency evaluation, or if there’s time to figure out the exact diagnosis.” Your doctor will be able to guide you through all options if you’re diagnosed with a blood cancer.

8. The Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center – Washington Township brings blood cancer treatments close to home.

The Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center has facilities in Philadelphia and across the region that collaborate to provide patients with the best care possible. Dr. Fernandez says, “The Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center has really become integrated into the community, so patients have access to excellent care close to home.”

To reach the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center – Washington Township, call 856-218-5324.