Blood cancer can run in the family: Know how to deal with the treatment woes

Your risk of blood cancer increases if you have a family member who is suffering from it, says a recent study. Read on to know how to deal with side effects of this condition.

People who have a parent, sibling or child with blood cancer have a higher likelihood of being diagnosed with the disease, says a new study published in Blood. This study offers the first evidence that familial risks exist across the spectrum of hematologic malignancies.

According to researchers from The Institute of Cancer Research, London,, the age of diagnosis, whether the relative is a parent, sibling, or child, and the number of affected first-degree relatives play a defining role in the relative risk of developing certain blood cancers.

They say that this information improves their understanding of the causes of and potential inherited predisposition to blood cancers. The results should also encourage conversations among families, clinicians and patients about familial risk.

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Researchers say that cases with a familial link represented 4.1 per cent of all blood cancer diagnoses. This is higher than cancers of the nervous system, kidney and pancreas, but lower than those of the breast, colorectum and prostate, which range from 8 to 15 per cent. The highest relative risks were seen for certain Hodgkin lymphoma (HL) subtypes, lymphoplasmacytic lymphoma and mantle cell lymphoma. Markedly elevated familial risks were also observed for polycythemia vera, myelodysplasia and essential thrombocythemia.

At present, there are no definitive screening initiatives for blood cancers. However, a revision was made to the World Health Organisation classification of myeloid neoplasms and acute leukemia in 2016. It recognised familial disease as an essential component of diagnosing certain subsets of blood cancers. The revision also underscored the need to examine and understand familial risk.


Researchers examined 16 million people in the Swedish Family-Cancer Database. They included 153,115 patients with confirmed blood cancer and 391,131 first-degree relatives. This allowed them to fully characterise familial risk across all blood cancer types. For specific blood cancers like chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), the increase in risk is dependent on the age of the affected relative and the number of affected first-degree relatives.

For example, for non-Hodgkin lymphoma, HL and CLL, the risk was higher among those who had a sibling with the disease, whereas others blood cancers were more likely to occur if a parent had been diagnosed. Generally, the familial risk was more pronounced when relatives were diagnosed at younger ages.


Chemotherapy is the first line of treatment option to fight blood cancer in which the drugs are targeted at stopping the cancer cells from multiplying. Even radiation therapy is a key treatment option. But the real problem is the side-effects of the treatment anaemia, constipation, bloating and loss of appetite. Hence, to help you deal with these common side effects of leukemia treatment, here are some valuable tips.

Fatigue and anaemia

A common side-effect of many treatment options, low red blood cell count is the primary reason for anemia, which leads to fatigue, which might last for several weeks even after completing the treatment.

As anaemia causes fatigue or constant tiredness, make sure you take short naps. Also, avoid long naps during the day as it might hinder sleeping at night. Here are 6 tests to check if you are anaemic or not. Include mild forms of exercise, like walking, to your daily routine. Drink plenty of fluids and follow your doctor's prescription correctly.

Anxiety and depression

After being diagnosed with cancer, most people feel anxious or depressed, which might be the case even during the treatment. However, keeping calm and positive not only helps you to ease mental stress but also aids in recovery. Talk to your family and friends about your feelings. Here's everything you need to know about dealing with depression. Inform your doctor about your condition and ask about ways to deal with depression and anxiety like the use of medications or referral to a psychologist or psychiatrist.

Loss of appetite

In some cases, chemotherapy can result in damage to the intestinal cells or affect the neurons (brain cells) which controls your appetite. Even radiation of the head or neck region causes alteration of taste and also makes it difficult to swallow, thereby reducing your appetite.

During the treatment, make sure you eat foods rich in proteins including protein shakes or drinks several times a day. Drink plenty of fluids to maintain your body temperature and also improve elimination of harmful waste from the body. Replace large meals with small, frequent meals, if you feel full after eating three large meals throughout the day. If you don't feel like eating on a single day, it's okay. But if your appetite fails to improve even after several days, consult your doctor immediately.

Bleeding problems

Chemotherapy or targeted treatment might lead to thrombocytopenia, low platelet count, which causes difficulty in clotting of blood. In some cases of leukemia, very low platelet count cause bruises or small red spot on the skin, known as petechiae. If you experience any of these symptoms, report it to your doctor at the earliest as it might lead to uncontrolled bleeding problems requiring platelet transfusion.

Stay away from sharp objects to protect your skin from cuts and scrapes. Use an electric razor to shave and take proper care while using nail clippers. Opt for a soft bristle toothbrush as hard-bristled one might lead to gum bleeding. Try to avoid toothpicks or dental floss and always consult your doctor before planning to undergo any dental examination. Call your doctor if you develop unusual bleeding, any bruise, tarry stools, blood in urine or stools or small red spots on the skin.

Bloating and swelling

In some cases, chemotherapy and targeted drug therapy might lead to water retention, but the symptoms might subside by the end of the treatment. Lower your intake of salt as excess salt might worsen the condition. Hence, use less salt while cooking and also check food labels for the sodium content. Walking and elevating your legs might help you to deal with bloating by increasing the water output. Here's a 7-day plan to reduce bloating or abdominal gas.


It is always a wise idea to take preventive measures for constipation, which can be infrequent or painful bowel movements. Load up your intake of fluids, especially water. Eat foods rich in fibre as it adds bulk to stools and softens it, thereby aiding in bowel movement. If your condition is severe, your doctor might recommend stool softeners or laxative.


If left unattended, diarrhoea might lead to dehydration. Caused mainly due to radiation and other medications, here are few tips to control diarrhoea. Try to avoid intake of milk and milk products as they further worsen your condition. Stay away from foods that might trigger gas or acidity like dried fruits, cereals rich in fiber, popcorn, nuts, corn and dried beans. Increase your intake of water and other fluids like soups and juices to prevent dehydration.

Hair loss

Known as alopecia, hair loss can affect you mentally as it acts as a visual reminder of leukemia treatment. Mainly caused due to chemotherapy and radiation, keep in mind that your hair might grow after the treatment. Try to cut your hair before the start of the treatment as it gives you sufficient time to accept yourself with no hair. After the treatment, invest in a wig or get a hat or scarf before you start losing hair. In this way, you can buy a wig that matches your hair. Moreover, using a hat or scarf protects your scalp from the harsh heat and cold temperature.


Lack of white blood cells (WBC) might increase your risk of infections as your body fails to fight infection. Known as neutropenia, it leads to fever, chills or inflammation at the site of the injury. Avoid crowded places or hanging out with people suffering from cold, viral flu or infections. If you have to do so, wear a surgical mask to prevent infections.

Do not forget to wash your hands before and after visiting a washroom or eating meals. Also, take a bath every day without fail to lower your bacterial load. Take care to avoid cuts and treat open sores as these might attract bacteria leading to infection. Avoid touching your eyes or nose without washing your hands properly.

Oral problems

Cancer treatment might result in sores on lips and mouth, which make your eating experience painful and unpleasant. Also, some people might experience a strange taste in the mouth following a stem cell transplant due to the chemical used for freezing process.

Always keep your mouth and lips moist and clean. This includes brushing your teeth with a soft-bristled toothbrush after meals and before going to sleep. If you floss normally, do not stop unless your doctor advises so. Also, if you are planning to floss, ask your doctor beforehand to prevent any complications. If you have dry mouth, include soft and pureed foods in your diet as they are easy to swallow. Also, sip water at regular intervals.

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