9 Signs of Blood Cancer Doctors Usually Miss
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. Find out what the color of your bruise means.
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—one of the 16 silent symptoms of leukemia you shouldn’t ignore.
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.” These 13 medical reasons may explain why you’re tired all the time.
Because the bodies of people with leukemia aren’t able to produce healthy white blood cells, frequent infections are a very common symptom, says Dr. Fischer. You may feel like you have a cold or the flu, but what will make it stand out from a standard illness is if you have a fever of 102 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. “A [high] fever in an adult is not normal,” says Dr. Jacoub. Most cold and viruses run through our system in about three to five days, Dr. Fischer adds, so anything well past that should be discussed with your doctor. In addition, these infections don’t tend to improve with antibiotics. (Read more about why fevers make you cold.)
Clinically referred to as mycosis fungoides, this lymphoma-specific rash happens when malignant cells in the blood travel to the skin showing up as a scaly, itchy appearance on the body. That doesn’t mean every rash is a cause for concern, says Dr. Jacoub. But if it’s a persistent problem that’s not getting better with topical medication over time your doctor may refer you to an oncologist for diagnosis. Check out these 8 home remedies for skin rashes.
Swollen lymph nodes
Painless swelling in your neck, armpits, or groin area can be a sign of blood cancer. Your lymph nodes contain white blood cells that help your body fight infection and disease. When these lymph nodes swell—and stay swollen—without any other symptoms (such as ear or throat pain), it may be a sign of blood cancer like lymphoma that originates in the lymph nodes or cancer that has spread to them.
If you constantly feel bloated or get full quickly after only eating a small amount, this could be a warning sign that something more serious is going on. Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) that is present in the liver or spleen inflate these organs, which may cause swelling in the abdomen area. This swelling can be so severe it can make it challenging for your doctor to feel these organs during an exam.
Bone or joint pain
Certain subtypes of leukemia, like acute myeloid leukemia (AML), often causes pain in the bones or joints where it’s growing. That’s because as the cancer cells take up space in the bone marrow it makes the bone marrow become overcrowded and enlarged, resulting in pain on or near the bones or joints where the infected bone marrow is. Read 6 times your joint pain is actually something more serious.
There are a lot of medical explanation as to why you may be experiencing night sweats, but if you’re waking up completely drenched night after night, leukemia or lymphoma can be a possible cause. Both conditions can cause fevers that can trigger nighttime sweatiness, but the cancer cells can also provoke the brain to raise body temperature. If you have to change your clothes in the middle of the night because they are so wet or you find yourself heavily sweating during the day, it’s time to talk to a medical professional. These are 30 other cancer symptoms you should never ignore.
- American Cancer Society: “Leukemia”
- 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
- American Cancer Society: "Lymph Nodes and Cancer"
- American Cancer Society: “Multiple Myeloma”
- Jack Jacoub, MD, medical oncologist and medical director of MemorialCare Cancer Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California
- Merck Manual: “Overview of Thrombocytopenia”
- American Cancer Society: "Signs and Symptoms of Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL)"
- Stanford Health Care: "Mycosis Fungoides: A Rash that Can Be Cancer"
- American Cancer Society: "Signs and Symptoms of Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML)"
- American Cancer Society: "Signs and Symptoms of Chronic Myeloid Leukemia"