Hematological Malignancies: Types & Causes

Instructor: Dan Washmuth

Dan has taught college Nutrition, Anatomy, Physiology, and Sports Nutrition courses and has a master's degree in Dietetics & Nutrition.

Most people know at least one person who has been diagnosed with a hematological malignancy, otherwise known as cancer of the blood or lymph system. This lesson will discuss the different types and causes of hematological malignancies.

Blood and Lymph Cancer

Robert is a 12-year-old who has recently started feeling quite sick, suffering from constant headaches, fever, and fatigue. Robert has also been losing a lot of weight over the past few weeks as well. Worried about her son, Robert's mom took him to the hospital to get checked out and hopefully receive some treatment to make him feel better.

At the hospital, doctors put Robert through several different tests and exams to see what was causing his recent illness. After reviewing the test results, a doctor informed Robert and his mom that he had acute lymphocytic leukemia, a type of blood cancer.

As you are reading this lesson, you can most likely think of someone you know who was diagnosed with a type of blood or lymph cancer, otherwise known as a hematological malignancy. These types of cancer affect hundreds of thousands of people all over the world, and can cause very serious health problems, including death.

Types of Hematological Malignancies

There are three main types of hematological malignancies, which are leukemia, lymphoma, and myeloma.

Leukemia

Leukemia is a type of cancer that occurs in the blood and involves the creation of abnormal white blood cells (WBC's). The body's bone marrow produces WBC's, and these WBC's function to protect the body against infection and other diseases. The bone marrow of a person with leukemia will produce WBC's that do not function properly and cannot effectively protect the body against various infections. Leukemia can also prevent the body from producing red blood cells as well.

There are several different types of leukemia which include acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), acute myelogenous leukemia (AML), chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), and chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML).

This diagram shows the various symptoms of leukemia, a type of cancer assocaited with the creation of abnormal WBCs.
leukemia

Lymphoma

Lymphoma is a type of hematological malignancy that involves the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system plays a very important role in the immune system by creating lymphocytes, which are a type of WBC (remember the WBC's help protect the body against infection and other diseases). In people with lymphoma, cancerous cells form in the lymphatic system, and these cancerous cells impair the immune system.

The two main kinds of lymphoma are Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The main difference between these two types of lymphomas is that Reed-Sternberg cells (a specific type of cancerous lymphocyte) are present in Hodgkin lymphoma but not in non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system, which plays a large role in the immune system.
lymphatic system

Myeloma

Myeloma is a type of hematological malignancy that involves plasma cells, which are WBC's that help to create antibodies. Antibodies are proteins that help to protect the body from disease causing viruses and bacteria. People with myeloma develop cancerous plasma cells which prevent the production of these antibodies. With fewer antibodies, the body will not be able to protect itself against various viruses and bacteria. The most common type of myeloma is called multiple myeloma.

This is a picture of myeloma cancer cells, which prevent the production of antibodies.
myeloma

Causes

Unfortunately, there are no know definitive causes of these hematological malignancies, nor are there any proven ways to prevent them. However, there seem to be several different risk factors for each of these types of cancers. The following chart describes these risk factors:

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