Many people think that breast cancer is the number one cancer killer, but actually, respiratory cancer tops the list; followed by digestive cancer, then blood cancers. Breast cancer is actually in fourth place; due in large part to significant medical advances over the last several decades.
Right now, you might be surprised to learn that over 100,000 people in Canada are living with blood cancers or are in remission. In 2013, 18,600 Canadians will be diagnosed with a blood cancer and 6,850 will die from their disease.
What are blood cancers?
Most blood cancers start in the bone marrow where blood cells are made. An uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells takes place, preventing the blood cells from doing their normal jobs of fighting infections or preventing bleeding. The three most common blood cancers are leukemia, lymphoma, and myeloma:
- Leukemia occurs when there is a rapid increase of abnormal white blood cells, leading to an inability to fight infections and decreasing the ability of bone marrow to make red blood cells and platelets. There are four different types of leukemia, categorized depending on which blood cells are affected (whether it’s a myeloid or lymphoid cell) and whether the disease starts in mature or immature cells. They are: acute myeloid leukemia (AML); acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL); chronic myeloid leukemia (CML); and chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL).
- Lymphoma affects the lymphatic system, which is responsible for clearing excess fluid from the body and making immune cells. When someone has lymphoma, white blood cells called lymphocytes that usually fight infection become abnormal, multiplying and collecting in lymph nodes and tissues. Lymphomas are really a diverse group of blood cancers that have certain identifiable characteristics but are classified into two main groups, Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
- Myeloma targets plasma cells in the bone marrow, preventing the normal production of antibodies in the blood, weakening the immune system and leaving the body more susceptible to infection.
Sixty years ago, a diagnosis of leukemia, lymphoma or myeloma was almost always fatal. Today, survival rates for some blood cancers have doubled or tripled, thanks to new treatments and therapies. For example, the drug Gleevec, which was approved by the FDA in 2001, is now standard chemotherapy for newly diagnosed chronic myeloid leukemia patients and survival has almost doubled to 95 per cent.
Survival rates are usually referred to as the percentage of people who survive five years after diagnosis. U.S. statistics for five-year survival rates for people diagnosed with blood cancers are: leukemia 56.5 %; Hodgkin’s lymphoma 86.3 %; non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma 69.5 %; and myeloma 41.1 %.
September is Blood Cancer Awareness Month
During September, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Canada (LLSC) is promoting awareness of blood cancer and helpful resources for patients and families on their web sites (English and French) and Facebook and Twitter.
- September 15 is World Lymphoma Awareness Day, an initiative by the Lymphoma Coalition to raise public awareness on Hodgkin and non- Hodgkin lymphoma.
- September 22 is CML Awareness Day, another international initiative to build awareness. Neat science twist: the date was chosen as chronic myeloid leukemia is caused by the 9/22 translocation of two chromosomes.
Donate to make a difference
- Donate blood. People fighting blood cancers need transfusions of blood products as part of their treatment. For example, a leukemia patient requires 8 units of blood a week. Find a Canadian Blood Services clinic near you and make the time to give the gift of life. Each donation takes only about an hour.
- Join the OneMatch Stem Cell and Bone Marrow Network. By signing up with a simple cheek swab, your information is entered in an international registry. By analyzing your tissue sample for specific proteins called human leukocyte antigens, HLAs, a match for a needy recipient may be found and may represent their last chance for survival after chemotherapy has failed. The closer the match, the better their chances for survival. A stem cell bone marrow donation is usually done by a procedure called apheresis, or peripheral blood stem cell donation, where stem cells are collected from a donor’s circulating blood. Right now, there is an urgent need for male stem cell donors between the ages of 17-35 years of age.
- Donate money to help fund continuing blood cancer research so new treatments and therapies can be found. Visit the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Canada to find out how to donate.
Check out this video, Rick’s OneMatch Story to see how blood donations and an anonymous stem cell donation made a big difference: