Blood cancer has subtle and surprising symptoms. Doctors share the most common ones that may require a closer look.
What is blood cancer?
“Blood cancer is a very broad diagnostic entity, but when you think of blood cancers, you’re typically thinking leukemia, lymphoma, and multiple myeloma, and they can span across many different sub-types,” says Sean Fischer, MD, medical oncologist and hematologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center and adjunct assistant professor of medical oncology at John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, California. Lymphoma occurs when cancerous cells are found in the lymphatic system. Leukemia originates in the bone marrow when the body creates an excess of abnormal white blood cells, which then interfere with the bone marrow’s production of red blood cells and platelets. In the case of multiple myeloma, cancer starts in the blood’s plasma cells, a certain type of white blood cell found in the bone marrow. Because blood cancer symptoms come on gradually, they are all too easy to ignore or overlook. These are the most common signs—just remember that they can also be symptoms of other, milder conditions, as well.
Unexplained bruising that seems to come out of nowhere (you don’t remember tripping or accidentally running into the coffee table) can result from certain blood-thinning medications or an infection; it can also be a warning sign of a blood cancer like leukemia, says Jack Jacoub, MD, medical oncologist and medical director of MemorialCare Cancer Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. That’s because excessive bruising typically occurs when the body has a low platelet count, a sign that could point to a blood disorder.
Unexplained bleeding that doesn’t stop easily can be another symptom of some types of leukemia, according to the American Cancer Society. Again, blood-thinning medications can also make it tough for your blood to clot and stem bleeding. In people with leukemia, abnormal white blood cells can impair the ability of platelets to coagulate, which can lead to excessive bleeding.
While you may write off your exhaustion to a busy schedule or stressful workload, constant fatigue that isn’t getting better warrants a visit to your doctor to rule out something more serious. “When you’re not able to produce healthy red blood cells [as those with blood cancers can’t] you can develop anemia,” explains Dr. Fischer. “This results in fatigue and low energy.”