Hematology is the study of blood and the organs that affect it in some way. Malignant hematology focuses specifically on the forms of cancer that damage bone marrow, blood and lymph nodes. These usually include leukemia, myeloma and lymphoma, all of which can be deadly, even when proper treatment is administered. Those who are involved in malignant hematology often diagnose patients via blood counts and biopsies. They then typically treat patients using chemotherapy, radiation or surgery, and also may research other methods of treatment that may be effective.
Among the most common concerns within the field of malignant hematology is leukemia, which occurs when the body makes white blood cells that do not work as they should. The bloodstream and bone marrow can become so full of these deformed cells that there is no room left for healthy cells, leading to serious illness or death when left untreated. Another disease studied in malignant hematology is lymphoma, which usually affects the lymph nodes and can spread to other parts of the body. Another type of hematological malignancy is myeloma, in which plasma cells are infected with cancer.
Those with proper hematology training usually are expected to accurately diagnose patients whose doctors suspect cancer, and such diagnoses often require a range of tests. The primary step typically is a complete blood count (CBC) so white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets can be studied; this is key because a high or low level of any of the three elements may indicate a medical issue. Those well versed in malignant hematology also may perform a blood film, in which they put a drop of blood under a microscope to determine if it is free of deformed cells. If these tests come back abnormal, then a biopsy may be performed, with doctors surgically removing a piece of tissue to examine it for signs of lymphoma, leukemia or myeloma. In some cases, doctors may surgically cut out bone marrow or extract some cells to find out if cancer is present.
Once a hematological malignancy has been diagnosed, it needs to be treated. Malignant hematology experts may start with chemotherapy, which involves taking a mixture of drugs that can kill cancerous cells, though this treatment also has a tendency to kill healthy cells. When the cancerous cells are mostly in one part of the body, such as in a tumor, radiation may be used to target just the unhealthy cells. In some cases, a bone marrow transplant is necessary to treat the cancer, because the body needs to replace cancerous cells with healthy cells. It is the job of a malignant hematology specialist to determine which treatment or combination of treatments is best for each patient.