Blood cancer — educate yourself and don’t be caught unaware

2018-09-26 06:00

BLOOD cancer impacts millions of people worldwide, but the symptoms can be vague and hard to spot.

This Childhood Cancer Awareness month, marked in South Africa in September and coinciding with international Blood Cancer Awareness Month, make an effort to understand blood cancers and their symptoms.

“Blood cancer; covering cancers that affect the blood, bone marrow and the lymphatic system; can cause a range of symptoms. But, by being aware of the warning signs and consulting your doctor early, you can improve your outcomes,” says Shelley Horner, Africa Cluster Head, Oncology at Novartis South Africa.

Blood cancers affect the production and function of blood cells.

Most of these cancers start in the bone marrow where blood is produced, and common symptoms may include persistent weakness and fatigue, nausea, fever, chills, unexplained weight loss, night sweats, abdominal discomfort, itchy skin or rash, frequent infections, swollen lymph nodes, shortness of breath, and headaches.


The word leukaemia literally means “white blood” and is used to describe a variety of cancers that begin in the blood-forming cells (lymphocytes) of the bone marrow.

According to the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA), leukaemias are divided into two major groups — acute, which progresses quickly, and chronic, which progresses more slowly.

According to the South African Children’s Cancer Study Group (SACCSG) registry statistics for 2009 to 2013, leukaemia is one of the five foremost childhood cancers in South Africa, and Childhood Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (ALL) is the most common cancer in children, accounting for around 25% to 30% of cancer diagnoses in children under the age of 15.

When a child has leukaemia, the bone marrow produces white blood cells that do not mature correctly.

Symptoms can include fever, pale skin, easy bruising or bleeding, frequent or severe nose bleeds, bone or joint pain, painless lumps in the neck, underarm, abdomen or groin, weakness or tiredness, dizziness, shortness of breath, and loss of appetite.

Treatment aims to destroy the leukaemia cells and enable the bone marrow to work again, and may include chemotherapy and other treatment.


Myelofibrosis is a rare, life-threatening blood cancer in which bone marrow, the tissue within bones that produces red and white blood cells and platelets, is replaced by scar tissue. This results in decreased blood cell production.

MF can be diagnosed at any age but is more commonly seen in adults between the ages of 50 and 80.

MF can take a heavy toll on patients, with debilitating symptoms that significantly impact quality of life.

One complication associated with the disease occurs when the spleen compensates for the decreased blood cell production and becomes enlarged.

For most people, treatment does not cure the disease. Rather, treatment seeks to prolong survival, reduce spleen size, relieve symptoms, improve the quality of life, and reduce the risk of complication.


Chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) is a cancer that occurs when the blood-forming cells of the bone marrow make too many white blood cells. CML is linked to a genetic mutation – the Philadelphia chromosome.

CML is rarely seen in children, and is responsible for 15% of all adult cases of leukemia, with the average age of diagnosis 64. It is slightly more common in men.

Symptoms of CML can be vague and non-specific, but common symptoms include weight loss, night sweats, fever, and a pain or feeling of fullness below the ribs.

Up to 1.5 million people are currently living with CML worldwide.

Advances in treatment have led to more patients living with CML — in fact, in the past decade, survival rates have almost doubled in the U.S.


Immune Thrombocytopenia (ITP) is not a cancer but it is a rare and potentially serious blood disorder characterised by increased destruction and decreased production of platelets — the blood cells that allow blood to clot properly.

A low platelet count increases the risk of bleeding and bruising, and symptoms of ITP can include spontaneous nose bleeds, bleeding gums, easy bruising, prolonged bleeding from wounds, and red or purple dots on the skin.

ITP affects one in 50,000 adults each year, with chronic ITP affecting women two to three times more often than men.

Chronic ITP affects mainly adults, and may require treatment to increase or maintain the platelet count.

People describe living with ITP as being on a “roller coaster”, and those living with ITP may experience fatigue, embarrassment due to physical symptoms, decreased libido, and hindered ability to work.

“Awareness of blood cancers is important, as early diagnosis and treatment typically improves outcomes. However, awareness isn’t always enough.

“That’s why Novartis is working to develop new and transformative treatments for patients as well as leading the way in educational efforts,” says Horner.

— Supplied.


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