Blood cancers together are the fifth most common form of cancer, with around one in 25 people diagnosed with a blood cancer in their lifetime. But because there are so many different types, individually blood cancers are relatively rare.
Today, Wednesday 29 February, is Rare Disease Day, an international effort to highlight less common diseases which collectively impact so many people’s lives each year.
Cancers such as breast cancer (around 550,000 people living with the disease in the UK) and prostate cancer (around 250,000) are more prevalent in this country than blood cancers (just over 100,000). However, the mortality rates are far higher for blood cancer compared to these diseases; around 15,000 people (approximately one in every eight patients) die from blood cancers each year in the UK compared to around 10,500 people (one in 23) from prostate cancer and 12,000 from breast cancer (one in 45).
This is because the individuality of different blood cancers can lead to significant issues around diagnosis and treatments.
Cancer diagnoses for less common diseases may be slow to be identified. Friday’s Daily Telegraph revealed that over 50 per cent of people with multiple myeloma needed at least three visits to their GP before they were referred to hospital. Individual GPs may only see a handful of blood cancer cases throughout their career.
Difficulties arise because symptoms for blood cancer can so often be confused with more everyday problems, leading to delays in diagnosis. For example, the early signs of multiple myeloma include back pain. Similarly symptoms of chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL) can be confused with flu.
At Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research, we’ve made great strides in enhancing the understanding of blood cancers, and now treatments for some, such as acute promyelocytic leukaemia (APL), are highly successful with over 70 per cent survival. However, survival rates for many blood cancers remain low, and we urgently need to fund more research to speed delivery of better medicines and save more lives.
Mike – Science Communications Team