A Closer Look at Blood Cancers

To mark Blood Cancer Awareness Month, we’re taking a look at blood cancers and the various research projects currently being carried out by Cure Cancer-funded scientists.

Every year, thousands of Australians are diagnosed with blood cancer in Australia. There are three main types of blood cancer, all of which can affect men, women and children. They encompass:

  • Leukaemias
  • Lymphoma
  • Myeloma (thankfully rare in children)


Leukaemias are types of blood cancers that originate in the blood and bone marrow. They occur when white blood cells ‘mutate’ and grow in an uncontrolled way, thus interfering with the bone marrow’s ability to make red blood cells and platelets.

There are two categorisations for leukaemia. Acute leukaemia appears suddenly and grows quickly, whilst chronic leukaemia appears gradually and develops over several months or years. 

Common symptoms of leukaemia can include:

  • Fatigue/Tiredness and/or anaemia
  • Repeated infections
  • Increased bruising and bleeding

4,527 people are estimated to be diagnosed and 1,958 people are estimated to die from leukaemia in Australia this year.

Treatment for leukaemia can vary, but may include chemotherapy, immunotherapy and/or stem cell transplantation.


Lymphoma is a blood cancer that develops in the lymphatic system, which is a system of lymph nodes, vessels and organs that runs throughout the body. The purpose of the lymphatic system is to circulate and regulate fluid levels in the body, absorb fats from the digestive system and defend the body against infection. 

Lymphoma occurs when lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell found in the lymphatic system) ‘mutate’ and grow in an uncontrolled way.

There are two main categories of lymphoma: Hodgkin Lymphoma (HL) and Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma (NHL). The difference between these diseases is the presence of Reed-Sternberg cells, which are derived from B-lymphocytes.

  • Hodgkin Lymphoma: Reed-Sternberg cells are present
  • Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma: Reed-Sternberg cells are not present. NHL accounts for approx. 90% of lymphoma diagnosis

Symptoms of lymphoma can include:

  • Fever
  • Swelling of glands in the neck or armpits
  • Swollen abdomen
  • Night sweats
  • Fatigue
  • Appetite/weight loss
  • Increased bruising and bleeding
  • Repeated infections
  • Cough, chest pain or shortness of breath
  • Rashes

6,423 people were estimated to be diagnosed and 1,623 people were estimated to have died from lymphoma in Australia last year.

Treatments for lymphoma can vary, but may include ‘watch and wait’, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, targeted therapies, stem-cell transplants, clinical trials and/or immunotherapy


Myeloma (also known as multiple myeloma) is a type of incurable blood cancer that originates in the blood and bone marrow. It occurs when plasma cells ‘mutate’ and grow in an uncontrolled way. Plasma cells form part of your immune system.

Normal plasma cells produce antibodies to help fight infection. In myeloma, abnormal plasma cells release only one type of antibody called paraprotein. This has no useful function, therefore affecting the body’s ability to fight off infection.

Symptoms of myeloma can include:

  • Fatigue
  • Bone pain
  • Bone fractures
  • Repeated infections
  • Kidney damage
  • High levels of calcium in the blood (hypercalcemia)

2,007 people were estimated to be diagnosed and 1,062 people were estimated to have died from myeloma in Australia last year.

Treatment for myeloma may vary depending on what stage the cancer has been diagnosed at.

If you have a family history of cancer, or are experiencing any worrying symptoms, the best thing you can do to alleviate any fears is schedule an appointment to see a doctor .

The fastest and easiest way to search for and book healthcare appointments is online through MyHealth1st.

Research into Blood Cancers

Dr Melissa Cantley: Seeking Longer Life For Multiple Myeloma Patients

Based at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute , Dr Melissa Cantley’s current research project is focused on the pre-cancerous condition to multiple myeloma, known as smouldering myeloma.

‘We know that, every year, one in ten smouldering myeloma patients will develop the deadly multiple myeloma, but at this time there are no diagnostic tests to identify who will do so,’ says Melissa.

Having received a two-year Cure Cancer grant, Melissa is working on identifying biomarkers in the blood of patients with smouldering myeloma who are at high risk of developing the fully active disease, in order to enable them to receive early treatment that helps them live longer.

Patients are usually only diagnosed with multiple myeloma when they show signs of organ and bone damage. Only 50% of them will survive for five years after diagnosis.

‘There is now evidence to suggest that treatment during the pre-cancerous stage improves patient survival, but determining who’ll benefit from treatment is difficult because the rate of progression varies so greatly,’ says Melissa. ‘Some patients will remain stable for an extended period, while others will progress rapidly, within two years of diagnosis, and would benefit from immediate treatment.’

Melissa and colleagues will use a state-of-the-art technique known as proteomics to identify protein markers in blood that are uniquely present in high-risk smouldering myeloma patients.

‘Many of these individuals would prefer being aware of their risk level instead of adopting a “watch and wait” approach, currently the standard of care for all smouldering myeloma patients. Preventing patients from actually going on to develop cancerous myeloma may provide answers that will ultimately enable scientists to cure it.’

Melissa’s grant is co-funded by Cure Cancer with Cancer Australia and Leukaemia Foundation.

Dr Kate Vandyke: Targeting The Side Effects Of Multiple Myeloma Drugs

Dr Kate Vandyke, a lecturer and researcher at the University of Adelaide and South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute , researches multiple myeloma.

In the past two decades, several new drugs for the treatment of multiple myeloma have been introduced, improving survival rates. But for many patients, these new treatments have side effects that have a huge negative impact on their quality of life. As a result, they many have to reduce the dose of drugs they’re taking or stop treatment altogether.

Kate and her team have identified a new treatment which dramatically increases the anti-cancer effect of common anti-myeloma drugs in mice. The research suggests that the treatment works by increasing the delivery of the medication directly to the site of tumours, decreasing the side effects.

‘This could dramatically improve quality of life, improve outcomes, and are likely to apply to other cancer treatments as well’ says Kate.

Kate’s grant is co-funded by Cure Cancer with Cancer Australia and Leukaemia Foundation.

To ensure vital research into blood cancers can continue, make a donation to Cure Cancer today: Donate

Cancer Australia AIHW

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