FORMS of blood cancer, such as leukaemia or lymphoma, are the fifth most common cancer, and the third biggest cause of cancer deaths.
Yet warning signs can be so unlike those of other cancers, that it’s often diagnosed at a very late stage.
Research by UK blood cancer charity Bloodwise (bloodwise.org.uk) found more than a third of sufferers had to visit their GP three or more times with symptoms before being a hospital referral. This makes it the worst performing cancer in terms of early diagnosis.
Why is it so difficult to spot? Blood cancers, which stop blood stem cells from working normally and can make you weak and prone to infections, have three main types with many different variations. These variations have numerous diverse symptoms, which can often be mistaken for other less serious conditions.
“Not all signs of blood cancer are easily identifiable, or are associated with typical symptoms of cancer, such as a lump or abnormal mole,” says haematologist Dr Manos Nikolousis, a medical consultant with UK blood cancer charity DKMS.
“Blood cancer often presents in ways which are most commonly associated with unrelated and less serious illnesses, like a cold or flu. In other circumstances, patients notice a change in their body which they can’t quite put their finger on.”
One of the treatments for blood cancer is a stem cell transplant that restores blood-forming stem cells in patients who’ve had theirs destroyed by very high doses of chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy. But Nikolousis points out that only one in three blood cancer patients who need a transplant find a matching blood stem cell donor in their family. The remaining two-thirds have to rely on an unrelated donor, which significantly reduces their chance of finding a crucial match.
Here, Nikolousis outlines some blood cancer symptoms and warning signs...
Musculoskeletal pain in muscles, joints, tendons, bones or structures that support the limbs, neck or back.
One of the most common symptoms associated with blood cancer. The frequency and lasting impact of bruising can be a key warning sign, so it’s important to book an appointment with your GP if this develops.
Unexplained and persistent tiredness is one of the biggest tell-tale signs of blood cancer. People who have cancer-related fatigue find it incredibly challenging to complete simple tasks that we tend to take for granted.
The lymph nodes are small lumps of tissue that contain white blood cells. When inflamed, they can be felt as lumps under the skin; most commonly in the neck, armpit or groin area.
There may be new headaches that feel different. They’re likely to occur frequently and be severe and long-lasting.
Persistent abdominal discomfort, presenting as a sharp pain or a sense of feeling full.
This can be described as a feeling of pins and needles/numbness that moves up to the legs, or from fingers to the arms.
This can feel like a fluttering, a sudden thump or a fast pounding sensation in the chest. It can also be felt in the neck or ear when lying down.
People may describe this as feeling mentally drained or dizzy.
Blood cancer patients may have continuous trouble falling asleep or staying asleep.
Persistent and irritable, this may be experienced all over the body, or in isolated spots.
These symptoms are common and don’t automatically mean you have cancer. But if you notice any unusual or ongoing changes, it’s always best to see your doctor and get checked.