National Blood Cancer Awareness Month

Blood is produced in your bone marrow, but when normal blood cell development goes amuck, blood cancers take over.

Lymphoma and leukemia share the common trait of uncontrolled white blood cell growth. “Typically, white blood cells grow, help fight infections or repair damage and then die off,” says Victoria Giffi, M.D., oncologist and hematologist with Meritus Cancer Specialists “With lymphoma and leukemia, white blood cells proliferate in your lymph nodes or blood.”

What is lymphoma?

Lymphoma is a blood cancer that affects your lymphatic system. Lymphoma cells can multiply and collect in your lymph nodes found in your neck, armpits, groin, chest and abdomen. Often categorized as either Hodgkin lymphoma or non-Hodgkin lymphoma, more than 90 types of lymphomas exist today.

There are many various signs of lymphoma. “It’s all about location and the organ being affected,” says Dr. Giffi who spent several years researching Hodgkin lymphoma at the University of Maryland. Sometimes lymphomas are diagnosed incidentally on a CT scan performed for other medical reasons. A lymphoma diagnosis may involve blood tests, CT scans and a biopsy of the affected lymph node.

Lymphomas can be described as either slow growing or aggressive. People with slow growing or indolent lymphoma require continuous observation, but they may live for years without needing treatment.

Aggressive lymphoma responds well to chemotherapy because the treatment kills the dividing cells. While the majority of lymphomas are curable with chemotherapy, some people may need a stem cell transplant from their own or someone else’s bone marrow. Lymphomas that return after chemotherapy are more difficult to treat and cure.

What is leukemia?

Leukemia starts in your bone marrow and is pushed out to your blood. The over production of abnormal white blood cells restricts the body’s ability to fight infections. With approximately 20 types of leukemia, the disease is classified by the type of white blood cell and its genetic features.

The more common chronic leukemia presents with little symptoms. According to Dr. Giffi, primary care physicians may see a trend in high white blood cell counts and request further testing. Chronic leukemia is diagnosed by a bone marrow biopsy and treatment varies greatly, however often the disease requires chemotherapy.

Acute leukemia hits quickly, like a ton of bricks,” explains Dr. Giffi. Symptoms can include paleness, bleeding gums, fever, fatigue and heavy night sweats. The disease requires a bone marrow biopsy to diagnose and must be treated quickly and aggressively with chemotherapy.

Risk factors for blood cancers

The older we get, the more we are at risk for changes in our DNA,” explains Dr. Giffi. Some mutations are inherited, but most are sporadic. Mutations often don’t cause cancer, but some mutations can activate cells and cause abnormal cell growth. In addition, heavy exposure to certain chemicals has been linked to non-Hodgkin lymphoma and leukemia.

“By far, seeing your primary care physician for well visits is the best way to prevent diseases or catch them early,” says Dr. Giffi. A discussion with your doctor on your health and family history along with lab work can paint a picture of your overall health.

The oncologists and hematologists with Meritus Cancer Specialists treat a wide variety of cancers using chemotherapy, hormonal, biological and targeted therapies. For more information about Meritus Cancer Specialists call 301-665-4710. Living with a blood cancer? Join the monthly Leukemia, Lymphoma and Multiple Myeloma Group held at the John R. Marsh Cancer Center.