Patients with blood cancer can get anaemia as a result of the condition, but anaemia itself does not cause cancer. Anaemia refers to the condition in which the body does not produce enough healthy red blood cells, or haemoglobin. Red blood cells play a critical role in delivering oxygen to the body. Insufficient red blood cells, and therefore insufficient oxygen, will lead to fatigue and affect the normal functioning of the various organs.
Anaemia can result from many medical conditions, but the most common cause is iron deficiency. Iron is needed by the bone marrow (the soft tissue in the centre of the bone) to make haemoglobin.
Leukaemia is caused by the rapid production of abnormal white blood cells in the bone marrow. The role of white blood cells is to fight infection. When the abnormal white blood cells divide quickly, they crowd out normal blood cells and affect the production of these cells. Leukaemia usually stays within the blood system and does not spread to other organs, so there are no stages in this type of blood cancer.
Myeloma affects the bone marrow and can develop in any part of the body that has bone marrow, such as the pelvis and spine. As it can occur in several places in the body at the same time, it is also called multiple myeloma.
Lymphoma affects the lymph glands and the lymphatic system. There are two main types of lymphoma. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma can be further divided into T-cell and B-cell lymphomas. The B-cell lymphomas can be further subdivided into low grade or high grade lymphoma. The exact causes of lymphoma are hard to determine, but it has been linked to several factors, such as viruses like HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus), Epstein Barr Virus (EBV), genetic disorders and exposure to carcinogens in the environment.
Success rates of treatment for blood cancers are improving significantly and patients are living longer than ever before.
There are a number of types of treatment that have been shown to be effective. They include chemotherapy, radiotherapy and in more severe cases, bone marrow transplantation. Newer forms of treatment have also emerged, such as targeted therapy and immunotherapy.
Of course, the best donor for bone marrow transplantation is a sibling. The chance of a full match when bone marrow cells are taken from a sibling is 25 per cent. However, blood cancer patients can also find donors who are unrelated, or even get haematopoietic stem cells (HSC) from “off-the-shelf” umbilical cord blood stored in cord blood banks.
Bone marrow transplantation, or allogeneic stem cell transplant, involves taking healthy bone marrow cells from a donor and infusing them into a patient with blood cancer. When a match is obtained, the healthy donor bone marrow cells will grow and populate, replacing the damaged stem cells in the patient and eventually helping the body to fight blood cancer.