Cancer Types | Blood Cancer - National Foundation for Cancer Research

Blood Cancers

Blood Cancers

There are three main types of blood cancers. Leukemia is a cancer found in your blood and bone marrow, lymphoma is a blood cancer that affects the lymphatic system and myeloma is a blood cancer that specifically targets plasma cells. Each year, these types of cancer account for approximately 10% of all new cancer diagnoses.

Key Facts

  • An estimated 178,520 new cases of leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma will be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2020, with 56,840 deaths expected to result from the diagnosis.
  • Every three minutes, one person in the U.S. is diagnosed with a blood cancer.
  • Leukemias are the most common cancers in children and account for 28% of all childhood cancers.
  • More than 1.3 million people in the U.S. are either living with or in remission today from a blood cancer.
Source: American Cancer Society’s Cancer Facts & Figures 2020 and The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society
Blood Cancers Awareness Ribbon
estimated new cases in 2020
expected deaths in 2020
% of all childhood cancers

Blood Cancer Research

In addition to specific projects listed below, genomics research is helping us attack blood cancers – and all types of cancer. NFCR has distinguished itself from other organizations by emphasizing long-term, transformative research and working to move people toward cancer genomics.

Curt Civin, M.D.
Curt Civin, M.D.

Leukemia is a great success story for cancer research — one in which NFCR-affiliated scientist Dr. Curt Civin played an important role. His early work on bone marrow stem cell transplantation was partially responsible for the dramatic increase of the five-year survival for all types of leukemia over the past 20 years.

And now, for patients still suffering from cancer and waiting for a cure, Dr. Civin’s current research may once again hold the key. Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is the deadliest form of leukemia. Dr. Civin discovered that artemisinins – a class of drugs with low toxicity used to successfully treat malaria – are also effective in killing AML cancer cells. Through research, he identified ART-838, a specific artemisinin compound, that shows remarkable effectiveness against leukemia cells and works well in combination with established anti-leukemia drugs. Further, it doesn’t appear to harm normal bone marrow cells. With support from NFCR’s AIM-HI Translational Research Initiative, next generation drug modeling software is creating the best chemical structure of ART-838 for optimal treatment outcomes for AML patients.

Michael B. Sporn, M.D.
Michael B. Sporn, M.D.

NFCR-funded scientist Dr. Michael Sporn, conducted research on fenretinide, a drug with similar structure to Vitamin A. He proved its safety for use in humans. It subsequently was shown to be both safe and efficacious in treating several cancers. However, fenretinide is poorly soluble in water (our bodies are composed of 60% water) and as a drug, it faced the challenge of delivering adequate doses to tumor cells. With support from the NFCR AIM-HI Translational Research Initiative, a novel delivery system has been designed to solve this problem. The unique delivery agent and fenretinide have gained approval to treat T cell-non Hodgkin lymphoma patients who have relapsed or stopped responding to their current therapy. Enrollment in the Phase 1 trial begins in 2020.

Wei Zhang, Ph.D.
Wei Zhang, Ph.D.

With NFCR support since 2006, Dr. Wei Zhang, a leader in precision oncology, characterizes underlying genetic mechanisms responsible for cancer growth and progression. His research addresses the variability in cellular properties, within and across cancer types, which often leads to treatment resistance and poor survival in patients. Dr. Zhang’s precision oncology approach has the potential to improve outcomes for T cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and Acute Myeloid leukemia (AML) patients that have stopped responding to standard treatments.

Cesare Spadoni, Ph.D.
Cesare Spadoni, Ph.D.

Dr. Cesare Spadoni is leading a team to develop treatments for the most common pediatric cancers with the poorest prognosis including Acute Myeloid Leukemia. In the oncology community, there is a void of cancer drugs specifically developed to treat children. His team identifies and characterizes new oncogenic pathways and the pathway interconnections may facilitate development of novel pediatric cancer drugs, ensuring more effective and less toxic cancer treatments. With this information, the scientists aim to repurpose known drugs and identify new combinations of drugs for pediatric cancers. They hope this research and drug discovery philosophy will bring a new treatment for AML in children.

Dr. Spadoni’s team with support from the NFCR AIM-HI Translational Research Initiative is first focusing their treatment development efforts on the difficult-to-treat cancer, rhabdomyosarcoma. A clinical trial is planned in 2020.

Related Content

7 Facts You Need to Know About Blood Cancers

Note: This article was originally published on 9/13/2017 and has since been updated by NFCR Writers William Werkmeister and Brittany Ciupka.  Blood cancers form in the bone marrow where blood is made or in the lymphatic system which protects us from infections. Background: More than 1.3 million people in the U.S. are either living with or in remission today from a blood cancer. Leukemias are the most common cancers in children and account for about 28% of all childhood cancers. An estimated 178,520 new cases of leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma will be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2020, with 56,840 deaths expected to result from the diagnosis. With these cancers continuing to affect the lives of so many people, it is important to understand the disease and what we can do to improve our chances of beating it. With these cancers continuing to affect the lives of so many people, it’s important to understand the disease and what we can do to improve our chances of beating it. Here’s a list of seven facts you need to know about blood cancers. Make sure you read about the NFCR-funded research work of Dr. Curt Civin and Dr. Michael Sporn focused on blood cancers. 1. Every three minutes, one person in the U.S. is diagnosed with a blood cancer. Blood cancers affect both children and adults and account for almost 10% of new cancer cases in the U.S. each year. That means approximately 178,520 people will be diagnosed with a blood cancer this year. Of these cases, 34% will be diagnosed with a leukemia, 48% with a lymphoma and 18% with myeloma. 2. Survival rates have significantly improved in the last 20 years. Decades of research have led to vastly improved outcomes for people with blood cancers. According to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, 66% of people diagnosed with leukemia live five years or longer. That rate climbs to 75% for non-Hodgkin lymphoma and 89% for Hodgkin lymphoma.  3. Every 9 minutes, someone in the U.S. dies from a blood cancer. Of the almost 606,520 people are who expected to die from cancer this year, 56,840 or 9.4%, will have been diagnosed with a blood cancer. Despite the progress we’ve made in the fight against blood cancer, there is still much work we need to do.   4. There are no effective screening tests for the early detection of blood cancers. Screening tests like mammograms for breast cancer and colonoscopies for colorectal cancer can help with the early detection and prevention of these cancers.  Although scientists are researching ways to prevent or detect all cancers at their earliest stages, nothing exists for blood cancers at this time.  As a result, people don’t typically know something is wrong until they experience symptoms. 5. …But there are warning signs. Common blood cancer symptoms include: Fever, chills Persistent fatigue, weakness Bone/joint pain Unexplained weight loss Swollen lymph nodes, liver and spleen Anemia Talk to your doctor right away if you are experiencing any of these symptoms.  6. There are three main types of blood cancers. Leukemia is a type of cancer found in your blood and bone […]

Multiple Myeloma: A Rare But Very Real Cancer

On May 23, 2018, my mother, Susan Williams, was admitted to UNC Rex Hospital in our home town of Raleigh, North Carolina, after being told that some “abnormalities” had shown up in her blood test. Several months earlier, my mom experienced excruciating pain around her rib cage and back that caused her to eventually become immobile. She met with multiple specialists to get opinions on what might be wrong. She was told it was probably a pulled muscle, maybe potential nerve damage, even osteoporosis. That is when we finally found out she had several fractures in her ribs, pelvis, and multiple crushed vertebrae. This explained the pain she endured. However, It wasn’t until that day in May when we finally got the answer we had been waiting for. The dreadful diagnosis that would change our family and, more greatly, my mom’s life forever. Multiple Myeloma is a cancer of the plasma cells which are white blood cells that help fight infection and are made in the bone marrow. The more of these cells that have myeloma, the more severe the symptoms are for patients; such as weak bones and a higher risk of infection— which often is what will lead to their demise. There is currently no cure for Multiple Myeloma. There are standard treatment options available to help manage the progression. A common treatment is a Stem Cell Transplant or Bone Marrow Transplant, where patients are dosed with intense chemotherapy that will hopefully kill the myeloma cells and replace enough of them with healthy cells. The majority of Myeloma patients will only need to have this transplant once. My mother was an exception. She had to go through it twice. After transplant, patients will often try different maintenance chemotherapies until one keeps their myeloma cell counts low and manageable. Multiple Myeloma never reaches remission because the disease is always in the blood and most likely will come back. Again, there is no cure. Learn more about Multiple Myeloma on NFCR’s blog here. Spreading awareness about this disease is crucial because it is difficult to diagnose correctly let alone detect early. It is also hard to track how well patients will respond to treatments and if treatment will even work at all, which is a discouraging fate my mom has been faced with. There are still a lot of unknowns about this cancer and we need to support research to be able to answer those questions. Every day we constantly prepare for the worst. Our hope is that my mom will be able to see the day when advancements in cancer research will save her life. March is Multiple Myeloma Awareness Month and I truly believe that awareness may help bring a cure someday.  It’s heartbreaking seeing someone you love suffer every day. We are faced with overwhelming feelings of helplessness when we can’t take their pain away. I wanted to do something more to help my mom which is what motivated me to volunteer my time to help the National Foundation for Cancer Research (NFCR) and their mission – Research for a Cure. Everyone has something to give to […]

Leukemia Drug Finds New Use

Approved by the FDA in 1993, the drug cladribine offered hope for the then-fatal blood cancer called hairy cell leukemia, or HCL, and was soon expanded as a therapy for multiple sclerosis. Developed by NFCR scientist Dr. Dennis Carson at the University of California, San Diego, cladribine acts like a purine nucleoside agent, which prevents cells from making DNA and RNA, and can selectively kill hairy cell leukemia cells. Heralded as a breakthrough cure, cladribine remains the first-line treatment for HCL and is also tapped as a treatment for B-cell chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Now researchers have expanded its use to another deadly form of leukemia, drug-resistant T-cell prolymphocytic leukemia (T-PLL). In a small study, T-PLL patients were desensitized to the antibody drug, alemtuzumab when it was combined with cladribine; the cancer essentially lost its drug resistance. In seven out of eight patients, the cladribine-alemtuzumab combo resulted in complete remissions, and a partial remission in the final patient. As of 2015, some patients remain in remission, although others have passes away. Alemtuzumab is marketed under the name Campath; cladribine under the name Leustatin. Considered very rare, T-PLL is an aggressive cancer of the out of control growth of mature T-cells, the assassins of the immune system. Chromosomal abnormalities are a hallmark in T-PLL patients; the most common chromosomal abnormalities are inversions or translocations involving chromosome 14 that result in mutations to the proto-oncogene TCL-1 (oncogenes are genes which in certain circumstances can transform a healthy cell to a cancerous one). Also frequently detected in patients with T-PLL are abnormalities in chromosome 8, primarily trisomy 8q, which is an extra copy of genetic material on the long arm (q) of chromosome 8. Deletions or mutations to the tumor suppressor gene ATM have also been observed in patients with T-PLL. Symptoms include bruising easily, rashes or skin lesions, swollen lymph nodes, quickly feeling full when eating, abdominal pain on the left side of the body due to a swollen spleen, and fullness. Cladribine was a trailblazer at the time of its introduction over 20 years ago. “[It was] a targeted agent directed against lymphocytes at a time when there was no such thing as targeted agents,” Carson recalls; targeted drugs and therapies are now among the hottest fields in medicine. Other treatments for T-PLL include combining alemtuzumab with the drug pentostatin, the FMC drug combination (fludarabine, mitoxantrone, and cyclophosphamide) followed by intravenous alemtuzumab, and hematopoietic stem cell transplantation. While it is not FDA-approved as a treatment for T-PLL, the drug nelarabine can also be used in some cases. Researchers admit that the initial trial of the cladribine-alemtuzumab combination dealt with a very small number of patients and that larger studies will have to be done per standard medical protocol to confirm safety and efficacy. That being said, the drug combination may move more quickly out of the trial phase and into practice due to the fact that both drugs are already approved by the FDA. References Fike, Bradley. (2015). Leukemia drug cladribine may get new use. Retrieved from: