Receiving the news you have blood cancer is devastating. But, there is now good reason for hope.

On World Blood Cancer Day, we speak with haematologist Professor Miles Prince as part of our series ‘Ask Us Anything’.

Prof Prince says there are more than 20 clinical trials underway at Epworth into blood cancer, giving patients access to treatments that are not readily available.

On World Blood Cancer Day, we speak with haematologist Professor Miles Prince as part of our series ‘Ask Us Anything’.

What is blood cancer? Understand the signs, symptoms and diagnosis.

Blood cancer is an umbrella term to describe cancers of the blood and bone marrow.

Cancer is an uncontrolled growth of cells. In blood cancers, the cells that grow out of control are blood cells. This is different to other cancers such as breast cancer, which start from breast tissue cells.

Blood cancers behave differently in the body depending on their type. Therefore, we group them into sub-types, often describing how quickly or slowly they grow. There are more than 100 sub-types of blood cancers but the largest groups overall are lymphoma, leukaemia and myeloma.

While blood cancers combined are one group, each person with blood cancer may have a unique experience and treatment needs.

Who can get blood cancer?

With more than 18,000 people in Australia estimated to receive a blood cancer diagnosis in 2021, it’s likely that you, or someone you know, has been affected by it.

Blood cancers can happen regardless of age, gender, where you live or your family history.

Some sub-types of blood cancer are more likely in diverse groups. One type, acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) is a blood cancer that most commonly affects children. Another form of blood cancer, multiple myeloma, does not affect children at all.

Researchers continue to work towards fully understanding blood cancers and their causes. Currently, there is no way to prevent blood cancers.

Signs and symptoms of blood cancer

Each type of blood cancer has its own set of signs and symptoms. Together, the most common symptoms of blood cancers are:

  • fatigue (tiredness) and feeling unwell
  • infections that are frequent or take a long time to recover from
  • swelling or a lump, especially in the lymph nodes (mostly in the neck and armpit area)
  • fever higher than 38°C with no explanation
  • weight loss with no explanation
  • bruising or bleeding that is abnormal
  • bone pain
  • extreme sweating, especially at night
  • rash or itch with no explanation
  • shortness of breath, chest pain, racing heart
  • abdominal (tummy) symptoms including eating less but still feeling full, indigestion
  • paleness.

Depending on the type, some people with blood cancer have no symptoms before diagnosis.

While it is helpful to know the signs, having a symptom listed above does not confirm you have blood cancer. It is important to speak to your general practitioner (GP) about what you are experiencing. They can run tests and investigate causes for your situation.

To learn more about the signs of individual types of blood cancer, read about leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma from the Epworth Centre for Immunotherapies and Snowdome Laboratories.

How is blood cancer diagnosed?

A doctor uses their expertise and investigations to confirm a diagnosis. This process commonly starts with a GP who checks abnormal blood test results or symptoms.

Further investigation can happen with a referral to a haematologist. A haematologist is a specialist doctor in the diagnosis, treatment and management of blood disorders and blood cancers.

Tests to diagnose blood cancer may include:

  • blood and urine tests
  • biopsy (a procedure to collect cells from areas with suspected cancer). This is commonly a bone marrow biopsy for blood cancers. Samples of bone marrow are taken through a needle in a bone at the back of the pelvis.
  • imaging to locate cancer or its effects around the body. Imaging may include a PET scan, CT scan, MRI scan, chest X-ray and ultrasound.
  • analysis of cancer cells and their DNA, including genomic testing.
Epworth Centre for Immunotherapies and Snowdome Laboratories

Getting a blood cancer diagnosis

Read more about getting a blood cancer diagnosis from the Epworth Centre for Immunotherapies and Snowdome Laboratories, a centre of excellence in blood cancer patient treatment and care.


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