September is Blood Cancer Awareness Month! To commemorate this important event, we are going to share with you a series of articles talking about blood cancer. In these articles, we will provide you some background information on blood cancer as well as explain the important role of cord blood stem cells in potentially treating blood cancers.

On this first article, we’ll start with some of the facts you need to know about blood cancer.

What is Blood Cancer Awareness Month?

Blood Cancer Awareness Month is an annual event held every September. It is designed to teach the public more about blood cancer and to raise funds for cancer research. Many organisations use this event to share information about blood cancer and to help the general public become aware of the symptoms of common blood cancers. It is also used as an opportunity to share cancer survival stories across social media and to provide support for anyone with blood cancer.

What is blood cancer?

Human blood contains millions of blood cells. These cells are produced by the bone marrow, a spongy material that is in the middle of human bones. They include:

  • Red blood cells – Red blood cells are responsible for carrying oxygen around the body.
  • White blood cells – White blood cells are used to fight and prevent infections in the human body. They are an essential part of the immune system.
  • Platelets Platelets help blood to clot.

In addition to blood cells, blood also has a large amount of plasma which contains glucose, hormones, clotting factors, antibodies, enzymes, fat particles and other substances.

Blood cancer develops when the blood cells produced by the body are malformed or mutated in some way. The body will produce huge quantities of these abnormal cells, which can spread to the lymph nodes, liver, lungs, and other parts of the body. Because the body lacks a sufficient quantity of healthy blood cells, the immune system, blood clotting or oxygen-carrying capacity of body may be affected. The three most common blood cancers are:

  • Leukaemia
    This form of cancer causes the bone marrow to produce a large number of abnormal white blood cells. These abnormal cells cannot function correctly, so they cannot help the body fight off infections. They will also interfere with the bone marrow’s ability to produce red blood cells.
  • Lymphoma
    Lymphoma affects the lymphatic system, which is responsible for producing immune cells and removing excess fluid from your body.
  • Myeloma
    Myeloma is a cancer of the plasma cells. Plasma cells are white blood cells that produce antibodies that fight diseases and infections.

Blood Cancer Facts:

Here are several important facts that you need to know about blood cancer:

1. Leukaemia and Non-Hodgkin lymphoma are the most common blood cancers

Statistics from the World Cancer Research Fund International show that Leukaemia and Non-Hodgkin lymphoma are the most common blood cancers. Leukaemia accounts for 2.5% of all cancers while Non-Hodgkin lymphoma accounts for 2.7%.

2. Blood cancer survival rates have been improving

Data published by the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society shows that the survival rate of patients with blood cancer has improved dramatically over the years. Between 1960 and 2013, the survival rate for Myeloma went from 12% to 51%, Leukaemia went from 14% to 64%, and Hodgkin Lymphoma from 40% to 88%.

3. There are many warning signs for blood cancer

There are many symptoms and warning signs for blood cancer including persistent fatigue, loss of appetite, fever/chills, bone/joint pain, headaches, shortness of breath, frequent infections, itchy skin, and swollen lymph nodes.

4. However, there are no effective screening tests

Some forms of cancer have screening tests which will help you detect the cancer in its very early stages, before it becomes very dangerous. Unfortunately, there is no way to screen a person for blood cancer in its earliest stages. It is usually detected after a person notices their symptoms and visits a doctor.

5. New treatments will be better at targeting blood cancer

There are new treatments being developed which will target the proteins associated with cancer cells — without harming other cells. This is a different approach to chemotherapy, which affects many kinds of cells. This will result in fewer side effects for patients.

6. Cord blood stem cells are often used to treat blood cancer

Doctors often use stem cells to cure patients of blood cancer. They start by giving the patient very high doses of chemotherapy to kill the blood-cell producing stem cells with the bone marrow. This eliminates the stem cells producing malformed blood cells. The patient will then receive a cord blood stem cell transplant which renews their ability to produce healthy blood cells.

7. Age is a significant risk factor in some types of blood cancer

Some forms of blood cancer mostly affect older people. Myeloma, for example, is very rare in people under the age of 45. However, many forms of leukaemia occur in people of all ages.

Leukaemia and Stem Cells

Leukaemia was one of the first illnesses to be treated with stem cell transplants. Stem cell treatments are intensive and can leave patients vulnerable to infection and other complications however, haematopoietic stem cell transplants have proven particularly useful for treating certain kinds of acute leukaemia.

Umbilical cord blood is a rich source of haemotopoietic stem cells with great promise for leukaemia sufferers. Cord blood stem cells are more easily matched to patients than bone marrow stem cells and with less than 50% of patients in need of a stem cell transplant able to find a bone marrow donor; stem cells from cord blood can offer a lifeline.

Lymphoma and Stem Cells

If in case high doses of radiotherapy and chemotherapy are used to kill lymphoma cancer cells, a stem cell transplant is used to replenish blood-forming stem cells which may be lost during the treatment.

While both autologous and allogeneic stem cell transplants can be employed to treat HL and NHL, autologous transplants tend to be the preferred option. Stem cells already play a vital role in the treatment of lymphoma and their role could be amplified further still.