If you’ve been diagnosed with a form of blood cancer (such as lymphoma, leukemia, myelodysplastic syndromes, myeloma and myeloproliferative neoplasms), you may be wondering about your treatment options and what is suitable for you. Your hematologist/oncologist will help you determine the right treatment approach based on the disease, your overall health and other factors.
The treatments your doctor recommends will depend on many factors, including:
- The type of blood cancer you have
- The disease’s stage, subtype, phase or category
- Where the cancer cells are located
- Whether the cancer is in your central nervous system
- Your overall health
- Your symptoms
- Your cytogenetic analysis results
- Your white blood cell count
- How aggressive the cancer is
- Your personal history of cancer and chemotherapy
- Whether you have a bloodstream infection
- Whether you’re pregnant
- How treatment may affect your quality of life
“It’s essential to see a hematologist/oncologist who specializes in blood cancer treatment,” says Dr. Navneet Majhail, Deputy Physician-in-Chief of Blood Cancers for the Sarah Cannon Transplant and Cellular Therapy Network. “There are so many factors that determine what regimen is right for each patient, so seeing a physician who has experience treating blood cancers will ensure you receive the right treatment for your needs.”
Types of blood cancer treatments
The most common treatment options for blood cancer include:
- Blood transfusion
- Clinical trials
- Palliative care
- Radiation therapy
- Stem cell transplant
- Watch-and-wait approach
You may need a combination of these therapies. Keep reading to learn more about each type of treatment.
Blood transfusion for blood cancer treatment
During a blood transfusion, you’ll receive cells from healthy volunteers to replace your platelets, red blood cells and other components of your blood. You won’t receive the donor’s whole blood, but rather filtered portions, such as platelets, white cells, red cells, plasma and cryoprecipitate.
You may need a blood transfusion because:
- The disease prevents the normal production of white cells, red cells and platelets in the bone marrow.
- Chemotherapy drugs are affecting your marrow’s blood cell production and your immune system function.
- High doses of chemotherapy during stem cell transplantation have wiped out your typical blood cell stores.
Chemotherapy for blood cancer treatment
Chemotherapy uses a combination of drugs to kill or slow the growth of cancer cells in the body. Chemotherapy drugs target cells that grow or multiply quickly, like cancer cells. Some new chemotherapy drugs change the DNA of cancer cells so that the cells die or are unable to grow and divide.
Chemotherapy can lead to long-term remission or a cure, depending on your cancer type and stage.
Clinical trials for blood cancer treatment
Your hematologist/oncologist may recommend that you participate in a clinical trial. Clinical trials are medical research studies to determine if a treatment, procedure or drug offers a better way of treating your type of cancer.
Clinical trials always provide treatment: either the current standard of care or the new treatment being studied. They can give you access to the latest breakthrough treatments since cancer research often moves faster than the FDA treatment approval process.
Immunotherapy for blood cancer treatment
Immunotherapy helps your immune system fight cancer. Immunotherapy often causes fewer immediate side effects than chemotherapy does. Your hematologist/oncologist may recommend immunotherapy by itself, in combination with other treatments or as a maintenance treatment after chemotherapy is complete.
There are three approaches to immunotherapy treatment:
- Drugs and vaccines that suppress cancer cells
- Manufactured antibodies that attach to the cancer cells
- Immune cells from your body or a transplant donor that are used to attack cancer cells remaining after chemotherapy
Palliative care for blood cancer treatment
Palliative care is designed to improve your quality of life and minimize side effects during treatment. A common misconception about palliative care is that it is only used for end-of-life care. However, palliative care can also be used alongside curative treatment.
Radiation therapy for blood cancer treatment
Radiation therapy is used to treat many types of blood cancer. Radiation therapy works by damaging the DNA within cancer cells to prevent them from growing and replicating. This therapy can also damage surrounding healthy cells, but treatment is constantly being improved to reduce side effects.
Stem cell transplant for blood cancer treatment
Blood stem cells are produced in the bone marrow. Cancer itself or cancer treatment can destroy your stem cells.
A stem cell transplant, also called a blood and marrow transplant, bone marrow transplant or allogeneic transplant, replaces damaged cells with healthy stem cells from a donor. Another type of stem cell transplant, autologous transplant, uses the patient’s own cells.
Before a stem cell transplant, you’ll receive high doses of chemotherapy and possibly radiation therapy to prepare your body for the procedure.
Watch-and-wait approach for blood cancer treatment
If your doctor recommends the watch-and-wait approach, they’ll monitor your condition without giving you any treatment. If you develop symptoms or your symptoms change, your hematologist/oncologist may recommend treatment. Typically, this approach is recommended for people with slow-growing or chronic forms of blood cancer.
“There are many safe and effective treatment options available for blood cancers,” says Majhail. “Together, you and your hematologist/oncologist can develop the best plan based on your condition, symptoms and treatment goals.”
Leukemia and Lymphoma Society: Understanding blood cancers and treatment options
Leukemia and Lymphoma Society: Types of treatment
Leukemia and Lymphoma Society: Blood transfusion
Leukemia and Lymphoma Society: Chemotherapy and other drug therapies
Leukemia and Lymphoma Society: Chemotherapy
Leukemia and Lymphoma Society: Palliative care
Leukemia and Lymphoma Society: Watch and wait