What are blood cancers?

The blood is made up of different types of blood cells. Blood cells are made in the bone marrow – a spongy material in the middle of our bones. Normally millions of new blood cells are made each day in our body.

There are three main types of blood cell:

  • red blood cells, which carry oxygen
  • platelets, which help the blood to clot
  • white blood cells, which fight and prevent infection.

Blood cancers develop when blood cells aren’t made properly. Blood cancers include leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma.

Other conditions are related to blood cancers because the affected cells grow in an uncontrolled way. They can usually be treated but don’t always need treatment straight away. The main conditions are; essential thrombocythaemia (ET), polycythaemia vera (PV), myelofibrosis (MF) and myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS).

The blood

Blood is made up of different types of blood cells, which float in a liquid called plasma. Blood cells are made in the bone marrow. This is a spongy material that’s found in the middle of our bones, particularly in our pelvis and backbone (spine). Normally, millions of new blood cells are made every day in the bone marrow. These new blood cells replace old and worn-out blood cells in the body.

All our blood cells are made from stem cells (blood cells at their earliest stage of development). Stem cells develop into two types:

  • lymphoid stem cells, which make white blood cells called lymphocytes
  • myeloid stem cells, which make other blood cells, such as red blood cells, platelets and other types of white blood cells.

In the bone marrow, stem cells divide and grow to form fully developed (mature) red blood cells, platelets and white blood cells.

To begin with, new blood cells are immature. They don’t look like red blood cells, platelets or white blood cells, and they can’t yet do the jobs they’re supposed to do. These immature cells are called blast cells (or blasts). Usually, blast cells stay in the bone marrow until they have matured into red blood cells, platelets or white blood cells. These are then released into the blood to carry out the following jobs:

  • Red blood cells contain haemoglobin (Hb), which carries oxygen from your lungs to all the cells in your body.
  • Platelets are very small cells that help blood to clot, and prevent bleeding and bruising.
  • White blood cells fight and prevent infection. There are several types of white blood cell. The two most important types are neutrophils and lymphocytes.


Lymphoma

Lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphocytes. Usually, a lump or tumour forms in one or more groups of lymph nodes, but it can begin in other organs in the body.

There are two main types of lymphoma:

Lymphoma (Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin) explained

Consultant Haematologist Antony Goldstone talks about Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, how they develop, symptoms and treatment.

About our cancer information videos

Lymphoma (Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin) explained

Consultant Haematologist Antony Goldstone talks about Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, how they develop, symptoms and treatment.

About our cancer information videos


Myeloma

Myeloma – also known as multiple myeloma – is a cancer of plasma cells. Plasma cells are a type of white blood cell that make proteins called antibodies. They are part of the immune system and help protect the body against infection.


Myeloproliferative neoplasms and Myelodysplastic syndrome

Some other conditions are closely related to blood cancers. They are similar because the cells grow in an uncontrolled way. But they tend to develop more slowly than blood cancers. There may be too many or too few of certain types of blood cells. The cells may be made too quickly and don’t mature properly. These cells come from myeloid stem cells, which are made in the bone marrow. The main conditions are:

ET, PV and MF belong to a group of conditions called myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs). This is when the bone marrow makes too many of one or more types of blood cell.

Myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) is a blood disorder where some of the blood cells made in the bone marrow are damaged. This means that not enough healthy blood cells make it into the bloodstream. Some people with MPNs and MDS can develop leukaemia.

Back to Blood cancers

Blood disorders (neoplasms)

There are some other conditions that are closely related to blood cancers. These include myeloproliferative neoplasms and myelodysplastic syndromes.