Blood cancer treatment types
There are a range of different treatments for blood cancer. The treatment your doctors recommend will depend on the type of blood cancer you have, your health, and your wishes.
You might have one type of treatment or a number of them. Some people with a slow-growing blood cancer may not need treatment straight away.
This section of our website gives a broad overview of types of treatment for blood cancer. You might also want to read our general information about how blood cancer treatment is planned and managing your treatment. We also have some important information on staying safe if you’ve got blood cancer, covering things like risk of infection and vaccinations.”
Choose a specific type of blood cancer for more detail about the treatment options.
During the coronavirus pandemic, your healthcare team will do their best to protect you. This might mean changes to how you're treated or where you're treated. Speak to your healthcare team if you have any questions about your treatment options. Read our information about coronavirus and your blood cancer treatment.
Watch and wait
Some people with blood cancer don’t need treatment straight away, and some never need it. If you have a slow-growing blood cancer, your doctor may recommend watch and wait. You will be monitored with regular check-ups and blood tests, but you won’t need to have active treatment.
Watch and wait doesn’t mean that you can’t be treated. It’s offered when your doctor believes there’s no added benefit to starting treatment straight away.
If the cancer is not causing any troublesome symptoms, watch and wait is a safe approach that avoids the side effects of cancer treatments. You’ll only start treatment if and when you need it.
Read more about watch and wait.
Chemotherapy means using cell-killing drugs to destroy cancer cells.
Chemotherapy is often given directly into a vein. The drugs can travel around the body in the bloodstream and kill the cancer cells. This is called intravenous (IV) chemotherapy. It’s also called having an infusion (a drip).
Usually, the chemotherapy is in a bag of fluid with a tube coming from it that goes into a vein in your hand, arm or chest. It can take several hours to receive chemotherapy into a vein in this way, or sometimes more than a day. Many people have chemotherapy as an outpatient – that means you come to hospital for treatment and can go home again afterwards.
Chemotherapy can also be given as tablets, sometimes as a course of treatment, or sometimes as a more long-term treatment.
Chemotherapy is often given in cycles. A cycle includes having some chemotherapy, and then having a rest period with no treatment. For example, you may have chemotherapy once a day for five days, and then have three weeks with no treatment. This is one cycle. The number of cycles you have and what they involve will depend on the type of blood cancer and drugs you are having.
Whilst chemotherapy can kill cancer cells, it also damages healthy cells in your body. This is what causes the side effects of chemotherapy.
Find out about side effects of blood cancer treatments.
Stem cell transplant
A stem cell transplant means replacing the stem cells in your body with new, healthy stem cells.
Stem cells are cells at an early stage of development. All blood cells start off as stem cells in the bone marrow. Blood cancer happens when something goes wrong with the development of your blood cells and they become cancerous.
A stem cell transplant can be a treatment for some blood cancers because it involves destroying the abnormal stem cells that are producing cancerous blood cells, and giving your body new, healthy stem cells that can make healthy blood cells again. This involves having high doses of chemotherapy to destroy your existing stem cells, and then having the transplant to replenish your bone marrow with healthy stem cells.
A stem cell transplant is also used to replace your stem cells if you need high doses of chemotherapy to treat your blood cancer, which as a result damages your bone marrow and stem cells.
There are two types of stem cell transplant:
- Autograft/autologous: where your own stem cells are collected and stored, and given back to you later by transplant
- Allograft/allogeneic: where someone else’s stem cells (a donor’s) are used for the transplant.
The way the cells are given to you during the transplant is into your vein, in a similar way to having chemotherapy or a blood transfusion.
Our booklet, Blood stem cell and bone marrow transplants: the seven steps explains what happens before, during and after a stem cell transplant.
Stem cell transplants during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic
If you're having a stem cell transplant during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, your treating team will ask you to take extra precautions in the weeks leading up to your transplant, to minimise your risk of catching the virus - for example, washing your hands regularly and thoroughly. You should follow this guidance carefully.
You'll also be tested for respiratory viruses, including COVID-19:
- up to 7 days before you're admitted to hospital
- on the day that you're admitted to hospital, before starting conditioning treatment (if local testing turnaround times allow). If this isn't possible, your treating team will ensure that you're tested during the 72 hours before you start conditioning treatment.
If you've been in close contact with somebody with COVID-19 during the week before your hospital admission, your stem cell transplant will be postponed for 3 weeks.
Immunotherapy is a way of treating cancer that uses your own immune system to attack the cancer. Any cancer treatment that harnesses the immune system to help it work can be classed as an immunotherapy.
Some immunotherapy drugs work by triggering your body’s own immune system to find and kill cancer cells. The drug attaches itself to a cancer cell, which makes the cancer cell easier to find for your immune system. Your immune system then attacks the cancer cell. An example of an immunotherapy drug that works like this is rituximab.
An example of advanced immunotherapy is CAR-T therapy, where your own T cells (a type of white blood cell that normally fights infection in the body) are genetically modified to boost their ability to find and kill cancer cells.
Targeted therapies are cancer treatments that work by targeting the genetic changes that cancer cells have, which normal cells don’t have. There are different types. Some of them may also be called biological therapies.
They may be given with chemotherapy or on their own. Some are given into a vein (by a drip), some are injections and some are tablets.
Antibodies are substances that occur naturally in the body and that fight infections.
Monoclonal antibodies are artificial antibodies that are made in a lab. Once they are in your body, they can find and attach to cancer cells, and kill them. They work by recognising particular proteins on the surface of cancer cells.
Monclonal antibodies work in different ways. Some interfere with signals that a cancer cell needs to survive or divide. Others work by carrying a chemotherapy drug directly to a cancer cell. Some attach to cancer cells to make them more visible to the body’s immune system, which can then attack it.
Monocloncal antibody drugs all have names that end in “mab”. Examples are:
Growth factors are chemicals in your body that tell cells what to do or how to grow properly. Cancer growth blockers are drugs that block these signals from affecting cancer cells, so the cancer cells do not grow properly, survive or divide as they otherwise would.
Cancer growth blockers all have names ending in “ib”. Examples are:
- types of TKIs
TKIs work by blocking signals sent from tyrosine kinases. Tyrosine kinases are enzymes that send messages to cancer cells telling them to grow and divide. By blocking these signals, TKIs stop the cancer from growing.
TKIs are often used to treat CML (chronic myeloid leukaemia). They are tablets that you take daily. Examples are:
Radiotherapy uses high-energy rays, such as x-rays, to destroy cancer cells. It can be used to treat Hodgkin lymphoma or non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The rays are aimed at the part of the body where the cancer cells are, for example particular groups of lymph nodes.
During treatment, you will lie on a flat surface with the radiotherapy machine above you. You will not feel anything during the treatment, but high-energy rays will be aimed at the part of your body being treated. This will damage the cancer cells in the area being targeted.
You will normally have to visit hospital daily to receive your treatment and then go home afterwards. It may take several weeks to complete a course of radiotherapy.
Surgery is rarely used to treat blood cancers, although a small number of people with lymphoma need to have their spleen removed.
Your doctor may recommend a treatment that’s available as part of a clinical trial. A clinical trial is a planned medical research study involving patients. These studies are done with the aim of looking for new treatment options and improving existing treatments.
Taking part in a clinical trial has many advantages, such as the opportunity to have the newest available treatment which may not be offered outside of the trial. You’ll also be very closely monitored and have detailed follow up.
Taking part in a clinical trial
If you take part in a clinical trial, you’ll either have the best current treatment available, or one that has the potential to be better. This allows the two treatments to be compared. Your safety and well-being is always the first priority.
Taking part in a clinical trial does come with uncertainties, and you may prefer not to take part in one.
If you don’t want to be in a trial, or there isn’t a suitable trial available, you’ll be offered the best treatment available at that time which is suitable for your individual condition.
Find out about clinical trials open in the UK.
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Find out more about specific types of blood cancer, as well as symptoms, treatments and side effects.