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Signs and Symptoms of Blood Cancer

Blood cancer—also called hematologic cancer—is a group of cancers that develop when abnormal (cancerous) blood cells grow uncontrollably. Your blood cells perform important functions, like carrying oxygen to your body's tissues, preventing heavy bleeding, and helping fight infections. With blood cancer, cancerous blood cells affect the production and function of normal, healthy blood cells, which can cause symptoms like fever, fatigue, and frequent infections.

There are three types of blood cancer which include leukemialymphoma, and myeloma. Some blood cancers develop slowly, as symptoms usually develop gradually and worsen as the disease progresses. Other blood cancers are fast-growing, and symptoms may develop suddenly and worsen quickly.

It's worth noting that some symptoms of blood cancer can often be mistaken for less serious conditions, like the flu. For this reason, healthcare providers often catch blood cancer in later stages when the disease has progressed and is more challenging to treat. However, knowing the warning signs can help you reach out to a healthcare provider early and get started on treatment sooner.

Types of Blood Cancer

Leukemia, lymphoma, and myeloma are the three most common types of blood cancer. Each of these conditions affects different kinds of blood cells:

  • Leukemia: Develops when abnormal white blood cells grow uncontrollably, which can impair the production of red blood cells and platelets.
  • Lymphoma: Affects lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell that helps your body fight infections. When cancerous lymphocytes grow uncontrollably, they build up in your body's lymph nodes and tissues and alter the function of your immune system.
  • Myeloma: Attacks plasma cells, which are white blood cells that produce antibodies to fight infections and diseases. Abnormal plasma cells affect the production of antibodies, which weakens the immune system and increases the risk of infection.

Common Symptoms

While leukemia, lymphoma, and myeloma all affect different blood cells, each condition does share some common symptoms, including:

  • Fatigue: One of the earliest and most common signs of blood cancer is persistent fatigue that doesn't improve with rest.
  • Frequent infections: Blood cancer affects the function and production of white blood cells that help fight infection, making people with blood cancer more susceptible to recurrent infections, such as the common cold and the flu.
  • Unusual bruising and bleeding: These conditions can disrupt your body's ability to produce normal blood platelets, which helps your blood clot properly. As a result, people with blood cancer often bruise easily or experience prolonged bleeding from minor cuts or scrapes.
  • Night sweats: Excessive sweating at night is common in people with blood cancers. Sweating may be so heavy it soaks through your pajamas or sheets, which can often disrupt your sleep.
  • Persistent fever: Fevers are common in people with blood cancer. Research suggests this may be a sign of cancer-related inflammation or due to toxins released into the blood by cancer cells.
  • Unintentional weight loss: Those who have blood cancer often report significant and unexplained weight loss.

Leukemia Symptoms

Leukemia occurs due to the rapid production of abnormal white blood cells in your bone marrow. The cancer cells make it hard for your body to fight infection and affect the production of healthy red blood cells and platelets. There are two types of leukemia: acute and chronic. Acute leukemia is a fast-growing cancer, and symptoms may develop suddenly, whereas symptoms of chronic leukemia may take years to develop.

Acute Leukemia Symptoms

Symptoms of acute leukemia develop quickly, and may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Frequent infections
  • Easy bruising or bleeding
  • Petechiae (tiny, red dots under the skin)
  • Bleeding gums
  • Loss of appetite
  • More frequent menstrual periods or heavy menstrual bleeding
  • Swollen or tender lymph nodes
  • Heavy or frequent nosebleeds
  • Night sweats
  • Pale skin
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • A feeling of fullness or discomfort below the ribs
  • Fever

Chronic Leukemia Symptoms

Chronic leukemia symptoms progress slowly. The cancerous white blood cells may not cause symptoms for years, but as the disease progresses, you might experience symptoms such as:

  • Fatigue
  • Anemia (low red blood cell count)
  • Shortness of breath during physical activity
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
  • Low-grade fever
  • Night sweats
  • Enlarged spleen
  • Fullness or discomfort below the ribs
  • Frequent skin, lung, or kidney infections

Lymphoma Symptoms

Lymphoma is a type of blood cancer that primarily affects the lymphatic system—a network of vessels and glands that helps your immune system fight infection. There are two main types of lymphoma: Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Hodgkin Lymphoma Symptoms

The most common symptom of Hodgkin lymphoma is one or more swollen (painless) lymph nodes in the neck, chest, abdomen, armpit, or groin. Other signs and symptoms of Hodgkin lymphoma include:

  • Fatigue
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Itchy skin, especially after showering, bathing, or consuming alcohol
  • Pain in lymph nodes after drinking alcohol
  • Abdominal pain or feeling of fullness below the ribs

Certain symptoms of Hodgkin lymphoma are called " B symptoms," which can help determine how severe your condition is and what stage of lymphoma you are in. Symptoms may include:

  • Drenching night sweats
  • Unexplained weight loss of over 10% of body weight in six months or less
  • Persistent fever

Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma Symptoms

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) usually develops in the lymph nodes and lymphatic tissues in the stomach, intestines, or skin. Most people with NHL have one or more swollen lymph nodes in the armpit, neck, or groin. A swollen node may sometimes develop in the elbow, ears, or throat near the tonsils. 

Other common symptoms of non-Hodgkin lymphoma include:

  • Excessive night sweating
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Unexplained fever
  • Cough
  • Chest pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Abdominal pain, bloating, or sense of fullness
  • Itchy skin
  • Skin rashes or lumps 

Myeloma Symptoms

Myeloma—also called multiple myeloma—is a type of blood cancer that affects the plasma cells in your bone marrow. Plasma cells are a type of white blood cell that produce antibodies, which your body uses to fight infections. Myeloma cells crowd out the healthy blood cells in the bone marrow, leading to bone damage or making bones more fragile. Common signs of myeloma include:

  • Bone pain, usually in the back, hips, and skull
  • Pain, weakness, or fractures in the bones, sometimes from only minor injuries
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Frequent infections, especially respiratory infections (e.g., the common cold)
  • Severe, sudden back pain
  • Easy bruising and bleeding
  • Nosebleeds
  • Bleeding gums
  • Cloudy vision
  • Numbness or weakness in the legs

Sometimes, myeloma causes hypercalcemia—or, high calcium levels in the blood. This can happen due to the breakdown of your bones. As a result, hypercalcemia may cause the following symptoms:

Myeloma can also cause a buildup of myeloma protein in the blood, leading to kidney damage and affecting the kidneys' ability to eliminate excess salt, fluid, and waste. When this occurs, people with myeloma may experience symptoms such as:

Symptoms in Children

Approximately 5% of all blood cancer cases affect children and adolescents under age 20. Leukemia and lymphoma are the most common cancers affecting children, accounting for nearly 38% of all cancer diagnoses among young people. Multiple myeloma is rare in children, adolescents, and young adults; only 0.3% of all cases affect people younger than 30.

Symptoms of childhood leukemia can include:

  • Pale skin
  • Feeling tired or weak
  • Shortness of breath during play
  • Easy bruising or bleeding, even after minor injuries
  • Frequent nosebleeds
  • Abdominal pain or swelling
  • Bone or joint pain
  • Fever with no other symptoms
  • Frequent or recurrent infections
  • Poor appetite
  • Weight loss

Symptoms of childhood lymphoma may include:

  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck, upper chest, armpits, or groin
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Night sweats
  • Persistent, unexplained fever
  • Poor appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Itchy skin
  • Abdominal pain
  • Chronic cough
  • Shortness of breath

When to Contact a Healthcare Provider

Many blood cancer symptoms mirror symptoms of other conditions, making it difficult to know when to contact your healthcare provider. See your healthcare provider if your symptoms persist, worsen, or you notice significant changes in how your body works or feels.

While it can be overwhelming to think about facing a possible cancer diagnosis, with early diagnosis and treatment, most people with blood cancer go into remission and live long, healthy lives.

Questions to Ask Your Provider

Before visiting your healthcare provider, write down your questions and concerns to bring to your appointment. Here are some questions you might consider asking them:

  • Is there a possibility that my bruising, bleeding, and fatigue are the result of another blood disorder?
  • Which tests can help me get a proper diagnosis?
  • How long will it take for my test results to come back?
  • If I receive a diagnosis for blood cancer, when can I start treatment?
  • What types of specialists will I be working with if I am diagnosed with blood cancer?

A Quick Review

Blood cancer is a general term for cancers that start in the bone marrow or blood cells. There are many types of blood cancer that all fall under three main types: leukemia, lymphoma, and myeloma. Symptoms of blood cancer vary depending on the type of cancer you have and the severity or progression of your condition. Common symptoms include fatigue, easy bruising and bleeding, frequent infections, unexplained weight loss, and night sweats.

See a healthcare provider promptly if you are experiencing symptoms of blood cancer. Early diagnosis typically means that more treatment options are available, which helps improve your chances of a full recovery.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between leukemia and lymphoma?

Leukemia is a cancer of white blood cells that affects the production of red blood cells and platelets. Lymphoma is a cancer of lymphocytes (specialized white blood cells) and the lymphatic system. With leukemia, cancer cells can grow in the bone marrow and blood, while cancer cells with lymphoma typically grow in the lymph nodes and lymph tissues of organs, such as the spleen.

Where do blood cancer symptoms start?

Blood cancer symptoms can start in the blood, bone marrow, or lymphatic system. The specific symptoms you experience depend on the type of blood cancer you have. For example, people with leukemia may experience fatigue, easy bruising and bleeding, and frequent infections, while those with lymphoma may experience swollen lymph nodes, night sweats, and fatigue.

Does blood cancer spread fast?

The speed at which blood cancer spreads depends on the type of cancer. Some types of blood cancer, such as acute leukemia, can spread quickly. Other types of blood cancer, such as chronic leukemia or multiple myeloma, spread more slowly. Early diagnosis and treatment can help slow or stop the spread of blood cancers.

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