What is blood cancer?

Blood cancer is a type of cancer that affects your blood cells. It starts in your bone marrow where blood cells form. Blood cancer affects the blood cells by not allowing them to function properly. This leads to issues like not being able to fight off germs that cause sickness or stop bleeding when you get a cut. There are three different types of cells in your blood: red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. Blood cancer can affect any of these cells.

Types of blood cancer
Leukemia Hodgkin's Lymphoma

Types of blood cancer

The three most common types of blood cancer are:


This cancer causes white blood cells to produce rapidly and abnormally. These cells can't fight off infections, and they also prevent red blood cells and platelets from doing their jobs.


This cancer affects the part of the body that removes excess fluids and produces healthy white blood cells in the body. It turns normal white blood cells that fight infection — called lymphocytes — into abnormal lymphoma cells. They build up in your lymph nodes and affect your body's ability to fight off sickness.


This cancer affects the plasma cells. Plasma is responsible for producing antibodies to fight off infections. Myeloma prevents this from happening, leaving you with a weakened immune system.

Causes of blood cancer

Doctors don’t know the exact cause of blood cancer yet. It occurs when there are changes in the DNA of the blood cells that prevent them from working properly. These changes can be linked to genetic and environmental factors. As of right now, there’s no way to prevent the disease from occurring.

Risk factors for blood cancer

As with other cancers, the risk factors for blood cancer may or may not play a role in who develops the disease. Many people who develop blood cancer have none of the risk factors. However, studies have shown there are a few things that increase a person's risk. These include:

  • Previously going through chemotherapy or radiation therapy
  • Genetic disorders
  • Exposure to toxic chemicals
  • Tobacco use
  • Family history of blood cancer

Symptoms of blood cancer

Symptoms of blood cancer vary depending on the type of blood cancer you have as well as any other health conditions you have. Many of the symptoms are the same as other illnesses, like the flu. Visit a doctor if the symptoms don't go away or get better on their own.

Common blood cancer symptoms include:

  • Fever and chills
  • Frequent infections
  • Ongoing fatigue and weakness
  • Sudden weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Headaches
  • Trouble breathing
  • Pain in the bones and joints
  • Pain in the abdomen
  • Skin rashes
  • Swollen lymph nodes (located in the neck, underarms and groin)

Diagnosis of blood cancer

Doctors begin the process of diagnosing blood cancer with blood tests. A complete blood count (CBC), measures the amount of blood cells in your blood. If too many or too few are present, this can indicate blood cancer. Blood protein testing and a bone marrow biopsy also help doctors detect unusual proteins, cells or tissues in your blood.

Treatments for blood cancer

You and your doctor will come up with a treatment plan based on the type of blood cancer you have, how old you are and how fast the cancer is progressing or spreading.

A stem cell transplant comes from healthy bone marrow from a donor. The stem cells are added to your body to help it start producing healthy cells again.

Chemotherapy is a regimen of anti-cancer drugs that work to destroy the cancer cells in the body.

Radiation therapy also destroys cancer cells and helps to reduce the symptoms of blood cancer. This treatment is often given before a stem cell transplant.

Recovery from blood cancer

The outlook for people with blood cancer is good. The National Institutes for Health estimate the five-year survival rate for those with leukemia at 63%, non-Hodgkin lymphoma at 70% and Hodgkin lymphoma at 85.9%.

If your treatment includes a stem cell transplant, you can expect the recovery to take several months. During that time, you will work with nutritionists, pain management specialists, rehabilitation therapists and other practitioners to help reduce side effects and improve your quality of life.

Find a blood cancer specialist nearby

Mercy Health locations that can treat you