September is Blood Cancer Awareness Month, a month when we can celebrate many of the advances that have been made in dealing with these complicated disorders.
Taken as a group, blood cancers represent the third-leading cause of cancer deaths and include acute and chronic leukemias, myelodysplasia, lymphomas, Hodgkin’s disease and multiple myeloma, to name some of the more common disorders. Every four minutes someone in the United States is diagnosed with a blood cancer and, every 10 minutes, someone loses their battle. Approximately 1 million Americans are battling blood cancers, including nearly 22,000 in Arizona, alone.
Often these disorders can be difficult to diagnose with vague symptoms like fatigue, bleeding or easy bruising, bone pain, recurrent infections or persistent swollen lymph glands. If you or a loved one has symptoms like this, it would be advisable to see your physician to make sure it isn’t something more serious than you might think.
Many of the exciting advances in cancer that have occurred over the past decade have involved blood cancers. One rare disease called CML, or chronic myelogenous leukemia, can now be treated with simple pills.
With CML, basic science and research found that an abnormality in the genes was directly responsible for the disease. By understanding this, scientists developed targeted therapies that hone in on this abnormality, changing a previously lethal disease into something that is controllable with pills. This has led to an increased interest in finding specific markers that can serve as “smart bombs” to target specific cells rather than resorting to traditional chemotherapy.
With Non Hodgkin’s and Hodgkin’s disease there are now monoclonal proteins that target a marker present on the abnormal cells. These directed therapies have been shown to greatly improve results for such patients.
Over just the last 10 years, we have seen a surge in new medications for multiple myeloma patients that have significantly increased not just survival, but have gotten people back to their normal lives more quickly. In addition to specific therapies there are now many more supportive therapies that can reduce symptoms related to blood cancers or, in some cases, side effects from the therapies necessary to treat the disease. In my field of transplantation, this has opened up this treatment to patients who are older and who previously might not have been candidates for such aggressive therapy. Like all therapies, it is important to talk to your doctor to ask about available options for your specific disorder.
These advances are in no small part due to the support of research efforts by organizations like The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS) and patients who participate in clinical trials. LLS invests heavily in life-saving research while also providing much-needed patient support. We are very lucky to have an active Arizona Chapter of LLS working hard to support our patients. In fact, LLS provided nearly $1.5 million in financial aid and copayment assistance to Arizona patients last year.
With continued advances and research, the future is bright that someday soon we will find even better ways to diagnose, and ultimately cure, blood cancers.
The Cancer Transplant Institute located at the Virginia G. Piper Cancer Center, specializes in treating blood cancers. We use a team approach working directly and in partnership with your local oncologist, to develop the best plan to deal with your blood disorder.
For further information on CTI, visit http://dev.shc.org/medical-services/cancer-care or call (480) 323-1573. For more information on The Leukemia Lymphoma Society in Arizona, visit http://www.lls.org/az.
• Dr. Jeffrey Schriber is medical director of the Cancer Transplant Institute at the Valley’s Virginia G. Piper Cancer Center.