Waldenstrom Macroglobulinemia Blood Cancer

Cancers of the blood alter how your body produces blood cells and compromises its ability to resist other diseases. Blood cancers account for roughly 10 percent of all cancer diagnoses in the United States each year.

About Blood Cancers

Blood is made up of a variety of different cells:

  • lymphocytes
  • plasma
  • platelets
  • red blood cells
  • white blood cells.

Each of these types has a different function. Healthy individuals have sufficient amounts of each type of blood cell.

Blood cancers occur when a particular type of cell begins to function improperly, whether by dividing or multiplying too quickly, or by living longer than they should, thereby crowding out other blood cells. Blood cancers are often detected by a Complete Blood Count (referred to as a CBC). In this test, a doctor can determine if a patient has any abnormalities in either amount or total percentage of each type of blood cell.

Risks for Developing Blood Cancer

While certain risk factors have been identified, no conclusive cause for blood cancers has been found. No one reason defines why the body begins to produce the abnormal cells that overwhelm the body and its systems. Generally, older individuals have a higher incidence of blood cancers. Furthermore, males are more likely to develop blood cancers.

Different Types of Blood Cancers

Three main types of blood cancers are:

  • leukemia
  • lymphoma
  • multiple myeloma.

Each type affects the growth of a different type of blood cell. Although related to one another, the different types of blood cancers have specific symptoms.

Although most blood cancers will fit into the categories below, certain rare blood cancers are harder to categorize. For example, Waldenstrom’s macroglobulinemia is caused by the buildup of a particular protein in the bloodstream. This protein causes the blood to become too thick.

Leukemia

Leukemia affects white blood cells, which are produced in the bone marrow. Leukemia is either acute or chronic. Acute leukemia is more common in children, and is the result of white blood cells reproducing too quickly. Chronic leukemia occurs when the body creates white blood cells that are not fully formed. Symptoms of leukemia include:

  • bruising
  • fatigue
  • joint pain
  • swollen glands.

Lymphoma

Lymphoma occurs when the body has an excess of lymphocytes. Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cell created by lymph tissues. They fight infection and ward off diseases from the body. Lymphomas can occur in parts of the body that have a high percentage of lymph tissue, such as:

  • the blood
  • the bone marrow
  • the stomach.

Lymphomas are frequently diagnosed when patients seek treatment for symptoms that, at first glance, do not seem to indicate cancer. Some lymphoma symptoms include:

  • chills
  • fever
  • low energy
  • night sweats
  • sudden weight loss
  • swollen lymph nodes and glands.

Lymphomas are divided into two main categories: Hodgkin’s lymphoma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. This distinction is based on the specific type of lymphocytes affected by the cancer. For both types, the survival rate is quite high with proper and prompt treatment.

Multiple Myeloma

Multiple myeloma occurs as a result of an excess of abnormal plasma cells in the blood. While tumors are often present in people with leukemia and lymphomas, tumors are not usually associated with multiple myeloma.

The following symptoms may indicate multiple myeloma:

  • anemia (and subsequent fatigue)
  • bone pain and weakness
  • increased thirst
  • increased urination
  • unexplained weight loss.

Treatments for Blood Cancer

Without a doubt, blood cancers are serious diseases. However, if you or a loved one is diagnosed with blood cancer, there is hope. In the past 30 years, survival rates have doubled due to better treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation and transplants.

Traditional Methods for Treating Cancers of the Blood

Chemotherapy is the most common treatment for blood cancers. During chemotherapy, chemicals that kill cancer cells are injected into the bloodstream. This targets all fast growing cells in the body. As a result, chemotherapy affects some healthy cells that regenerate quickly, such as hair follicles. If tumor masses have formed, radiation therapy is often used in conjunction with chemotherapy. During radiation therapy, high-energy rays (such as X-rays) are aimed at the tumors.

Since many blood cancers originate in the bone marrow, a bone marrow transplant can be a treatment option as well. Bone marrow levels are often depleted during chemotherapy and radiation. A transplant replaces the patient’s depleted bone marrow with that of a compatible donor. The new marrow then produces healthy blood cells.

Scientific Advances in Treating Blood Cancers

Another treatment option is biologic therapy. During biologic therapy, proteins and antibodies that bind to or react with the abnormal cells are introduced into the bloodstream.

Certain rare blood cancers, such as Waldenstrom’s macroglobulinemia, can be treated with plasmapheresis, or blood filtering. During this treatment, blood is removed from the patient, and the excess proteins are removed from the blood. The blood is then put back into the patient. This thins the blood, alleviating symptoms, but does not cure the disease.

Researchers are still developing treatments for blood cancers. For example, doctors are testing the use of thalidomide for blood cancers. This controversial drug has been shown to help protect bone marrow during blood cancer treatment.

Your doctor will recommend to you the best treatment option for your particular condition. Early detection increases survival rates, so be sure to monitor your heath and speak to your doctor if you experience any of the symptoms above on a regular basis.

Resources

Aetna InteliHealth. (2008).Blood cancer. Retrieved February 18, 2009, from the Aetna InteliHealth Web site: http://www.intelihealth.com/IH/ihtIH/WSIHW000/8096/8514.html.

BBC News (2001). Thalidomide ‘fights blood cancer.’ Retrieved February 18, 2009, from the BBC News Web site: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/1481153.stm.

Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. (2008). Leukemia and lymphoma disease information. Retrieved February 18, 2009, from the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society Web site: http://www.leukemia-lymphoma.org/all_page?item_id=7087.

Lymphoma Research Foundation. (2009). About lymphoma. Retrieved February 18, 2009, from Lymphoma.org Web site: http://www.lymphoma.org/site/pp.asp?c=chKOI6PEImE