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3 Types of Blood Cancers, Symptoms and Treatments

Blood cancers account for 6% of all cancer cases. Here is how they can be treated with Western and alternative medicines.

Elderly Asian couple encouraging each other as the wife is on cancer treatment.

Blood cancers total 1.24 million cases of all cancer cases worldwide annually. Two of the most common types in Malaysia are leukaemia and lymphoma. 

Though they are caused by abnormally multiplying body cells, blood cancers differ from solid tumour cancers that spread to distant places only in advanced stages. In blood cancers, abnormal cells occur in a liquid and flow throughout the body.

Being diagnosed with blood cancer is an emotional and turbulent journey for patients and their loved ones. Fortunately, recent advancements in modern medicine and new therapies have improved its prognosis.

Types of Blood Cancer 

Blood cancers, just like other cancers, occur when cells in the blood marrow start multiplying erratically. This prevents normal bone marrow cells from developing and performing their functions. There are three main types of blood cancers: 

  • Leukaemia: Starts in the bone marrow and develops due to the overproduction of white blood cells. Classification of leukaemia as acute and chronic is based on the progression of the disease and the types of cells involved. 
  • Lymphoma: Develops in the lymphatic system and affects white blood cells called lymphocytes. There are two types depending on the types of cells present– Hodgkin’s and Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. 
  • Multiple myeloma: A cancer of plasma cells originating in the bone marrow. 

Besides these, Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS) and Myeloproliferative Neoplasms (MPN) are also considered blood cancers.

A woman coughing blood into a napkin
Blood cancers hinder the body from fighting infections. 

Factors That Can Cause Blood Cancer 

Like many other cancers, blood cancers are believed to develop from genetic and environmental factors. It has been observed that smoking and exposure to radiation and certain chemicals are associated with an increased risk. Infection with the Epstein-Barr Virus, HIV and human T-cell lymphoma/leukaemia virus also increases the risk of developing blood cancers.

How TCM defines blood cancer 

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), acute leukaemia is classified as acute fatigue (ji lao, 急劳), Deficiency fatigue (xu lao, 虚劳), Blood Syndrome (xu zheng, 血证), or Heat lead by Internal Damage (nei shang fa re, 内伤发热).

According to Real Health Medical’s Chief TCM Physician Chu I Ta, the causes of blood cancers include genetic or congenital Deficiencies, emotional disorders, and chronic fatigue. These result in the weakening of immunity and Qi and Blood Deficiency. An imbalance of the zang-fu organs (脏腑) causes Heat Toxicity, which affects the bone marrow, leading to blood cancer. 

“Though the disease is located in the bone marrow, it is related to dysfunctions of the Spleen, Kidneys and Heart. The key factors leading to disease are a toxic attack on the bone marrow, blood and bone marrow damage, and Excess Heat burning yin, resulting in fever and bleeding symptoms”, explains Physician Chu.

Meanwhile, chronic Myeloid Leukaemias is classified as Cumulative Syndrome (ji zheng, 积证), Toxic Phlegm (tan du, 痰毒), abdominal mass (zheng jia, 癥瘕) , scrofula – tuberculosis of the throat (luo li, 瘰疬), and Blood Syndrome (xue zheng, 血证).

“In this case, the pathogenic factors are congenital Deficiency, Deficiency of Zang-Fu organs, invasion of six exogenous factors and the damage of seven emotions”, says Physician Chu. These allow the penetration of toxins and damage the blood and bone marrow, resulting in qi and blood disorders. The pathogenesis of the disease is due to the collision of qi, blood, phlegm and Heat.

Common Treatments of Blood Cancer

Asian nurse tending to an elderly cancer patient.
Traditional Chinese Medicine can support and augment the effect of chemotherapy treatment.

The symptoms of blood cancer include fever, chills, fatigue, weakness, bone and joint pain and weight loss. Blood cancers used to have a very poor prognosis in the past. But due to advances in modern-day medicine, several therapies have improved the outlook for patients considerably.

Clinical treatments 

The treatment of blood cancers in Western medicine depends on the type of blood cancer and how far it has spread in the body. Medical practitioners usually prescribe one or a combination of the following treatments: 

  • Chemotherapy: Anti-cancer medicines are injected or taken orally into the body and kill the cancer cells. 
  • Radiotherapy: High-energy rays are used to kill cancer cells. 
  • Targeted therapy: Medicines are specially designed to kill only targeted cancer cells without harming the other cells in the body. These medicines have significantly lesser side effects compared to chemotherapy. 
  • Stem cell transplantation: Healthy cells which can transform into normal blood cells are infused into the body to help resume normal blood cell production. 
  • Surgery: Surgery is performed to remove infected lymph nodes in cases of lymphomas. 
  • Immunotherapy: Medicines activate the immune system against cancer cells and kill them. 

How TCM Helps with Blood Cancer Treatment 

TCM has several remedies that can support and augment the effects of Western medicine. Physician Chu explains TCM treatment for leukaemia is administered at different stages: before, during, and after chemotherapy.

The treatment in TCM depends on identifying the syndrome type and customising the therapy based on the unique body constitution of each patient. That’s why it’s important to consult a licensed TCM practitioner and not self-medicate with over-the-counter medicines. 

Before chemotherapy 

Before treatment beings, patients may be diagnosed with the following syndromes. TCM suggests the decoctions that can help with symptoms: 

  • Qi and Yin Deficiency: Herbal remedy includes San Cai Feng Sui Dan (三才封髓丹加). 
  • Qi and Blood Deficiency: Ren Shen Yang Ying Tang (人参养荥汤) helps strengthen the Spleen, tonify qi and blood, generate body fluids, raise the yang qi of the Spleen and stomach, tonify the Lungs, and generate flesh. 
  • Excess Heat and Toxins: Xi Jiao Di Huang Tang (犀角地黄汤) clears Heat from the blood, removes toxic substances and dissipates stasis. 
  • Stasis Toxic Syndrome: Tao Hong Si Wu Tang (桃红四物汤) is an old TCM remedy that helps ease fatigue

During chemotherapy 

During chemotherapy, it is common for patients to suffer from the side effects of toxic drugs, which can hamper treatments. Common side effects experienced by patients include nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, poor appetite, and jaundice. A TCM physician can identify the associated syndrome and treat it accordingly, helping the patient withstand the toxic effects of the chemotherapeutic drugs.

Physician Chu recommends the following herbal remedies to combat the common syndrome seen during chemotherapy: 

  • Weak Spleen and stomach: Xiang Sha Liu Jun Zi Tang (香砂六君子汤) is used to strengthen the Spleen, harmonise the stomach, and tonify qi.  
  • Weak stomach with Reverse Qi: Xuan Fu Dai Zhe Tang (旋覆代赭汤) directs rebellious qi downward, transforms phlegm, augments qi, and harmonises the stomach. 
  • Liver Stagnation and weak Spleen: Xiao Yao San (消遥散) clears Liver Stagnation by improving the flow of qi

After chemotherapy 

Chemotherapy drugs attack and kill the body’s normal cells in addition to cancer cells. Because of this, blood cell production is usually hampered after chemotherapy. According to Physician Chu, the principle treatment of TCM at this stage is focused on reinforcing vital qi and restoring the functions of all organs.

Physician Chu suggests the following remedies to revitalise the vital organs, which are the Kidneys, Liver and Spleen: 

  • Liver and Kidney Yin Deficiency: Zui Gui Wan (左归丸) nourishes yin, strengthens the Kidneys, fills the essence, and augments the bone marrow. 
  • Spleen and Kidney Yang Deficiency: You Gui Wan (右归丸) warms the Spleen and Kidneys and tonifies yang

Blood cancers now have a better prognosis than ever before. With the wealth of knowledge gained over the years in traditional and Western medicine, patients can overcome the condition and enjoy a good quality of life. However, it’s necessary to seek consultation from an oncology-trained physician for a suitable herbal formula to support cancer treatment.

References

  1. Molecules. 2022. Targeted drug delivery for the treatment of blood cancers. [online] Available at: <https://www.mdpi.com/1420-3049/27/4/1310> [Accessed on 6 October 2022] 
  2. Seminars in Oncology Nursing. 2012. Traditional Chinese Medicine for Cancer-Related Symptoms. [online] Available at: <https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0749208111001008> [Accessed on 6 October 2022] 
  3. Integrative Cancer Therapies. 2002. Traditional Chinese Medicine Principles. [online] Available at: <https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/epdf/10.1177/1534735402001002009> [Accessed on 6 October 2022] 
  4. Bristol Myers Squibb. 2020. Blood Cancers. [online] Available at: <https://www.bms.com/assets/bms/us/en-us/pdf/Disease-State-Info/blood-cancers-at-a-glance.pdf> [Accessed on 6 October 2022] 

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