What is Blood Cancer?

What is Blood Cancer?

Blood cancers are typically caused by changes in the DNA within the body's blood cells. Usually, blood cancers stem from an excessive reproduction of white blood cells in the body's blood-forming tissues and organs. Blood cancer often begins in the bone marrow, where blood is produced, or in the lymphatic system, a major part of the body's immune system that manages fluid levels.

When white blood cells begin reproducing at abnormal and rapid rates, they disrupt the functioning of normal blood cells, which fight off infection and disease and help produce new blood cells. Blood cancers (also called hematologic cancers) account for about 10% of all cancers diagnosed each year in the United States. Blood cancers are more common in men than in women.

There are numerous types of blood cancer. Although there are similarities among the different types, each presents unique symptoms and signs and therefore requires unique treatment.

Stages of Blood Cancer


Most cancers are classified into different stages based on the size and rate of metastasis or how much the cancer has spread to other body areas. Because most blood cancers begin in the bone marrow, they require a different method of staging. Blood cancer stages are typically determined by blood cell counts and the level of cancer cells in other organs, such as the liver.

The characteristics of each stage will depend on the specific blood cancer type, so the criteria for each stage may vary.

Types of Blood Cancer


A multitude of blood cancer types present with unique symptoms and require specific courses of treatment. The most common types of blood cancer are:


Leukemia begins in the body's blood-forming tissues — the bone marrow or the lymphatic system. From there, it can spread to different body parts, including the liver, spleen, and central nervous system. Leukemia typically involves an overproduction of white blood cells, which disrupts the bone marrow's ability to create platelets and red blood cells.

There are several types of leukemia, which are classified first by the cancer's progression:

Acute leukemia

Acute leukemia is caused by the overproduction of immature blood cells, called blasts. Typically, white blood cells are affected. This type of leukemia progresses quickly and therefore requires swift, aggressive treatment.

Chronic leukemia

The overproduction of mature blood cells causes chronic leukemia. Usually, the white blood cells are affected. There are various types of chronic leukemia, including those that produce too few blood cells and those that produce too many. Chronic leukemia typically affects adults.

In addition to being classified by the progress of the cancer, leukemia is classified by the type of white blood cell affected. Some of the most common types of chronic or acute leukemia include:

  • Lymphocytic leukemia - Lymphocytic leukemia — which can present as either chronic or acute — involves the lymphoid cells in the lymphatic system, called lymphocytes. These white blood cells form part of the immune system.
  • Myeloid leukemia - Presenting as either chronic or acute, myeloid leukemia involves the myeloid cells, a type of blood cell that originates in the bone marrow and eventually produces different types of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelet-forming cells.

Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma

Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma originates in the lymphatic system —specifically, in white blood cells called lymphocytes. There are more than 70 different subtypes of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, including Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia, cutaneous B-cell lymphoma, and cutaneous T-cell lymphoma.

Hodgkin's lymphoma

A far less common type of blood cancer, Hodgkin's lymphoma is caused by the overproduction of lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell within the lymphatic system. Hodgkin's lymphoma is curable compared to other types of cancers, but individual outcomes will depend on the subtype of Hodgkin's lymphoma, patient gender and age, and time of diagnosis. There are two main subtypes of Hodgkin's lymphoma:

Classical Hodgkin's lymphoma

About 95% of all Hodgkin's lymphoma cases are the classic type. There are four subtypes of classic Hodgkin's lymphoma:

  • Nodular sclerosis - This lymphoma subtype is typically found in the neck and chest. It's often diagnosed in children and young adults.
  • Mixed cellularity - More common in older adults, mixed cellularity Hodgkin's lymphoma usually occurs in the abdomen
  • Lymphocyte-rich - Men are more likely to be diagnosed with this rare subtype of classic Hodgkin's lymphoma. In these cases, the affected lymph nodes have many normal-appearing Reed-Sternberg cells — large, abnormal white blood cells — and lymphocytes.
  • Lymphocyte-depleted – The rarest of all classical Hodgkin’s subtypes. Older adults and people with HIV are more likely to be diagnosed.

Nodular lymphocyte-predominant Hodgkin's lymphoma (NLPHL)

In this less common type of Hodgkin's lymphoma, these abnormally large white blood cells resemble pieces of popcorn. They're often referred to as popcorn cells because of this. NLPHL is often diagnosed in middle-aged adults.

Multiple myeloma

Multiple myeloma originates in the blood's plasma cells—white blood cells made in the bone marrow that secrete immunoglobulin, or antibody, which protects the body from infection. This type of lymphoma accumulates cancerous plasma cells in the bone marrow, which crowd out healthy blood cells.

Myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS)

Myelodysplastic syndromes occur when blood-forming cells in the bone marrow are poorly formed or don't work as they should, resulting in low numbers of various blood cells. MDS is broadly characterized as a lower-risk and higher-risk disease based on the degree of anemia, neutropenia, thrombocytopenia, blast count, and cytogenetic (chromosomal) abnormalities.

Myeloproliferative neoplasm

These types of blood cancers originate in stem cells located in bone marrow. This group of diseases includes polycythemia vera, essential thrombocythemia, myelofibrosis, and rarer entities such as systemic mastocytosis.

Signs & Symptoms of Blood Cancer


Blood cancer signs and symptoms will vary depending on the type of blood cancer as well as the the patient's demographics (such as gender and age), health, and diagnosis time. In general, however, the following signs and symptoms can indicate blood cancer:

  • Coughing or chest pain
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Fever, chills, or night sweats
  • Rash or itchy skin
  • Nausea or loss of appetite
  • Frequent infections
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Easy bruising or bleeding, or recurrent nosebleeds
  • Black or streaked bowel movements
  • Heavy periods
  • Bone or joint pain

Blood Cancer Risk Factors

Risk Factors

There are numerous risk factors for blood cancer. But, it's important to note that many people who develop blood cancer don't exhibit any of these known risk factors. Below are some of the most common:

  • Exposure to high levels of cancer-causing chemicals - Chemicals such as benzene found in gasoline, can increase the risk of blood cancer. The main ingredient in Agent Orange — an herbicide used in the Vietnam War and other wars — has also been linked to blood cancer. Some pesticides also contain cancer-causing ingredients.
  • Exposure to high levels of radiation - Such as from an atomic bomb explosion or working in a plant that manufactures atomic weapons, can increase one's risk of getting blood cancer
  • Smoking or tobacco use - Cigarettes and other tobacco products contain many cancer-causing chemicals. Those who smoke or have a history of smoking are at heightened risk for blood cancer.
  • Previous chemotherapy or radiation therapy - Some kinds of chemotherapy and radiation therapy can alter cells' DNA, increasing the risk of blood cancer
  • Family history - Some types of blood cancer are hereditary, meaning parents can pass on mutated genes to their children and increase their risk of cancer
  • Genetic syndromes - Such as Down syndrome, ataxia-telangiectasia, Fanconi anemia, and Bloom syndrome can also heighten the risk of blood cancer
  • Obesity - May put some individuals at a higher risk of developing some blood cancers

Blood Cancer Prevention


There is no definitive way to reduce one's risk of developing blood cancer, but certain lifestyle changes can help decrease the risk:

  • Avoid exposure to radiation and cancer-causing agents and chemicals such as pesticides
  • Quit smoking
  • Stay active, eat healthily, and maintain a proper sleep schedule

Genetic testing is available for certain types of hereditary blood cancer. If you believe your personal or family history puts you at higher risk, consult with a doctor about your options.

Get Care

Trust NewYork-Presbyterian for Blood Cancer Care

The expert team at NewYork-Presbyterian is committed to providing personalized care for patients with all types of blood cancer and related disorders, including leukemia, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, Hodgkin's lymphoma, multiple myeloma, myelodysplastic syndromes, and myeloproliferative neoplasms.

We'll work closely with you to understand any symptoms you may be experiencing, run the necessary diagnostic tests or procedures, and create a comprehensive treatment plan to meet your needs.