What you need to know about breakthroughs in blood cancer treatments

Blood Cancer
Advances in diagnosing and treating blood cancers have helped double survival rates, and the future outlook may be even brighter.

Advances in diagnosing and treating blood cancers have helped double survival rates, and the future outlook may be even brighter. Blood cancers—leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma—made up almost 10 percent of all cancer cases diagnosed in 2015, or about 162,000 new cancer cases. At the same time, progress is being made on the survival front. More than 1 million people are either living with the disease or are survivors. “Survival rates and quality of life have increased, thanks to recent, innovative drugs that are coming into play,” says Brion Randolph, MD, Chief of Medical Oncology at our Atlanta hospital. Here’s a look at some recent treatment advances:


The most common type of blood cancer, with more than 80,000 cases diagnosed each year, lymphoma starts in the cells of the body’s immune system. The disease is categorized into two main types: Hodgkin lymphoma (HL) and non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL). Both affect white blood cells known as lymphocytes, which help the body fight infections and other diseases. HL is most common in adolescents and young adults between the ages of 15 and 40, patients over the age over 55, while NHL is most likely to strike after age 60. The five-year survival rate for both cancers has more than doubled during the past 50 years, to 87.7 percent and 71.4 percent, respectively. HL is typically treated with chemotherapy and radiation, while NHL treatments may include stem cell therapy and drugs known as monoclonal antibodies. These drugs are designed to attack the CD20 antigen, a specific protein found on the lymphocyte that causes cancerous cells to grow.

Breakthrough: The FDA approved ibrutinib in 2013 as a treatment for patients with a particularly aggressive form of NHL known as mantle cell lymphoma. The drug is also being studied to determine whether it may help fight another type of NHL, follicular lymphoma, and the results are promising.


This type of cancer typically affects the white blood cells, but it can also occur in red blood cells, which carry oxygen, and in platelets, the cells that clot the blood. Leukemia is either classified as acute (fast growing) or chronic (slow growing), and there are four main types: acute myeloid leukemia (AML), chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) and chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). Leukemia occurs most frequently in adults older than 55, but it’s also the most common cancer in children. Like lymphoma, advances in detection and treatment are making a difference. The five-year relative survival rate for leukemia has more than doubled during the past 50 years, from 14 percent to 34.2 percent. Depending on the type of leukemia, treatment options include stem cell transplants, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and immunotherapy (stimulating the immune system to increase activity against cancer cells).

Breakthrough: AML is considered one of the deadliest types of leukemia, with a five-year survival rate just over 25 percent. “We haven’t had any new breakthroughs to help improve survival in 20 years, until now,” Dr. Randolph says. Researchers are now studying an experimental drug that inhibits the activity of FLT3, a gene mutation linked to this disease. Early results are promising.


This cancer is caused by malignant plasma cells, which are found in the bone marrow and are an important part of the immune system. While it’s the least common of the three cancers, it has long been considered the deadliest. But five-year relative survival rates have increased from 12 percent to 46.7 percent in the past 50 years. Right now, the three-year survival rate is 60 percent. “Over the last decade, there has been an explosion of new drugs that have allowed people to live longer,” Dr. Randolph explains. Risk factors for developing myeloma include age (most people who get the disease are at least 65), race (myeloma is twice as common in African Americans), a family history and radiation exposure. Men are slightly more likely to develop this cancer than women. Early-stage myeloma is typically monitored closely, while more advanced disease may require a stem cell transplant, chemotherapy and possibly drugs such as bortezomib, which interferes with the growth of cancer cells. 

Breakthroughs: In the fall of 2015, the FDA approved three new treatments for multiple myeloma—daratumumab (Darzalex), elotuzumab (Empliciti) and ixazomib (Ninlaro)—that activate the body’s immune system to attack multiple myeloma cells or hinder their ability to grow. “These drugs may be options for people who have had at least one prior therapy but have had the cancer return,” Dr. Randolph says. “While they aren’t improving survival time that significantly, they’re increasing the periods of time patients may go without experiencing symptoms, which can greatly improve quality of life.”