Several kinds of cancer attack the cells that make up your blood. Their symptoms usually come on slowly, so you might not even notice them. And some people have no symptoms at all.
But there are a few things to look for with the most common kinds of blood cancer.
Blood cells are made inside your bone marrow, and that’s where leukemia starts. It causes your body to make white blood cells that grow out of control and live longer than they’re supposed to. And unlike normal white blood cells, they don’t help your body fight infection.
There are many different forms of leukemia. Some get worse quickly (acute). You’ll probably feel very sick very suddenly, like you’ve come down with the flu. Other forms can take years to cause symptoms (chronic). Your first clue may be abnormal results on a routine blood test.
Most signs of leukemia happen because the cancer cells keep your healthy blood cells from growing and working normally.
Anemia: This is when your body doesn’t make enough red blood cells, or the ones you have don’t do their jobs well. Signs of it include:
- Feeling tired and weak
- Shortness of breath
- Pale skin
- Chest pain
Poor clotting: Platelets are the cells that make your blood clot. When your body doesn’t make enough of them, small cuts may bleed more than usual, or you might have a bloody nose often. You may also have:
- Unusual bruising
- Bleeding gums
- Tiny red dots on your skin from broken blood vessels
- Heavy periods
- Bowel movements that are black or streaked with red.
Other symptoms: Because your white blood cells don’t fight infection well, you’ll get sick more often and take longer to get over it. You may get a lot of fevers and have night sweats.
Cancer cells can build up in your lymph nodes, tonsils, liver, and spleen and cause them to swell. You may feel lumps in your neck or armpit, or you may feel full after only eating a small amount. You may lose a lot of weight without trying. And the growth of cancer cells in your bone marrow sometimes causes bone pain.
Your lymph system carries infection-fighting white blood cells called lymphocytes throughout your body and helps get rid of waste. Lymphoma causes your body to make lymphocytes that grow out of control and make it harder for you to fight infection.
Swollen lymph nodes are the main sign of lymphoma. You may notice a lump in your neck, armpit, or groin. Lymph nodes farther inside your body may press on your organs and cause coughing, shortness of breath, or pain in your chest, belly, or bones. Your spleen may get bigger, making you feel full or bloated. The swollen nodes aren’t usually painful, but they may hurt when you drink alcohol.
Some other common signs of lymphoma are:
- Night sweats
- Feeling tired
- Unexplained weight loss
- Itchy skin
The plasma cell is another type of disease-fighting cell in your bloodstream. Multiple myeloma causes your bone marrow to make plasma cells that grow out of control and keep your body from making enough healthy blood cells. They also release chemicals into your blood that can hurt your organs and tissues.
Some forms get worse faster than others, but symptoms typically don’t show up until you’ve had it for a while.
Bone pain: The most common sign of multiple myeloma is serious and long-lasting pain, usually in your back or ribs. The cancer cells release a chemical that stops the normal growth and healing process in your bones. They get thin and weak and can break easily.
Damage to the bones in your spine can put pressure on your nerves and cause pain or weakness in your legs, tingling in your arms, and loss of bowel or bladder control.
Hypercalcemia: Multiple myeloma causes high levels of calcium in your blood. That can lead to:
- Nausea and stomach pain
- Excessive thirst and urination
- Loss of appetite
Too much calcium in your blood can also hurt your kidneys. Certain proteins made by the cancer cells can, too. Signs include swollen ankles, shortness of breath, and itchy skin.
Other multiple myeloma symptoms: The proteins the cancer cells release can damage your nerves, which can cause weakness, numbness, and pain in your arms and legs. Multiple myeloma cells also crowd out healthy cells in your blood. That can cause bleeding problems and make you anemic and more likely to get infections.