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What is blood cancer?

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Blood cancer is a type of cancer that affects your blood cells. Over 40,000 people are diagnosed with a blood cancer each year in the UK, and over 250,000 people are currently living with blood cancer.

Types of blood cancer

There are different types of blood cancer, including:

They each have different symptoms, treatments and prognoses.

Acute and chronic blood cancers

You might see blood cancers described as:

  • acute – this means a fast-growing cancer
  • chronic – this means a slower-growing cancer

Childhood cancers

Some types of blood cancer affect children. Symptoms and treatment can be different between children and adults. We have more information about childhood leukaemia.

What causes blood cancer?

All blood cancers are caused by changes (mutations) in DNA within blood cells. This causes the blood cells to start behaving abnormally. In almost all cases, these changes are linked to things we can’t control. They happen during a person’s lifetime, so they are not genetic faults you can pass down to children.

Although we don’t normally know exactly why someone has developed blood cancer, there are things that we know can affect your risk:

  • age
  • sex
  • ethnicity
  • family history
  • radiation or chemical exposure
  • some health conditions and treatments

How these factors affect risk depends on the type of blood cancer.

Can I reduce my risk of blood cancer?

Unlike some other cancers, lifestyle factors such as diet and exercise have little effect on your risk of developing blood cancer. However, a healthy lifestyle can significantly reduce your risk of other types of cancer and other diseases.

Explaining how blood cancer starts

Your body is made up of trillions of tiny building blocks called cells. Cells make up every part of your body, including your blood.

The cells in your body are constantly dying and being replaced. This is how your body grows and repairs itself. Normally, cells divide (split) in a controlled way, to make new cells when needed.

DNA is a substance within your cells, which controls how cells develop, behave and die. If something goes wrong with the DNA inside a blood cell, the blood cell may not develop or work properly, not die when it should, or divide and multiply too quickly. This can lead to blood cancer.

In blood cancer, abnormal blood cells can keep multiplying. They may not be working properly and they may stop healthy blood cells from working. This can stop your blood doing the things it normally does to keep you healthy, like fighting off infections or helping to repair your body.

Dawn, support line worker

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