Marrow is the sponge-like material inside your bones. Located deep within the marrow are stem cells, which can develop into red blood cells (RBCs), white blood cells (WBCs), or platelets.

Bone marrow cancer happens when cells in the marrow begin to grow abnormally or at an accelerated rate. Cancer that starts in the bone marrow is called bone marrow cancer or blood cancer. Bone marrow cancer is distinct from bone cancer.

Other types of cancer can spread to your bones and bone marrow, but they’re not classified as bone marrow cancer.

Continue reading to learn about the different types of bone marrow cancer, how they’re diagnosed, and what you can expect.

Symptoms will depend on the type of cancer you have.

Multiple myeloma

The most common type of bone marrow cancer is multiple myeloma. The signs and symptoms may include:

Leukemia

Leukemia usually involves WBCs. Some signs and symptoms of leukemia are:

Lymphoma

Lymphoma can start in the lymph nodes or the bone marrow. Some signs and symptoms of lymphoma are:

  • fever and chills
  • low energy
  • unexplained weight loss
  • swollen lymph nodes
  • swelling in the neck, underarm, arm, leg, or groin
  • night sweats
  • nerve pain, numbness, and tingling
  • feeling of fullness in the stomach
  • chest or lower back pain
  • rash or itching

There are three major types of bone marrow cancer.

Multiple myeloma

Multiple myeloma starts in the plasma cells. These are WBCs that make antibodies to protect your body from foreign invaders.

Tumors form when your body starts to produce too many plasma cells. This can lead to bone loss and a decreased ability to fight infections.

Leukemia

In leukemia, the body produces abnormal blood cells that do not die off as they should. As their numbers grow, they swarm WBCs, RBCs, and platelets, interfering with those cells’ and platelets’ ability to function.

Acute leukemia involves immature blood cells, called blasts, and symptoms can progress quickly. Chronic leukemia involves more mature blood cells. Symptoms of chronic leukemia can be mild at first, so you might not know you have it for years.

There are many types of leukemia, including:

Learn more about the differences between acute and chronic leukemia.

Lymphoma

In lymphoma, lymphocytes, or cells, grow out of control, forming tumors and making it difficult for your immune system to do its job.

There are two main types of lymphoma.

Hodgkin’s lymphoma, also known as Hodgkin’s disease, starts in specific B lymphocytes. The other type, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, starts in B or T lymphocytes. There are also many subtypes.

It’s not clear what causes bone marrow cancer. Contributing factors may include:

If you have signs or symptoms of bone marrow cancer, a doctor will review your medical history and do a complete physical examination.

Depending on those findings and your symptoms, diagnostic testing may involve:

The results of the biopsy can confirm a bone marrow cancer diagnosis and provide information about the specific type of cancer. Imaging tests can help determine how far the cancer has spread and which organs are affected.

Treatment for bone marrow cancer will vary by individual. It’s based on the specific type and stage of cancer at diagnosis, as well as any other health considerations.

The following treatments are used for bone marrow cancer:

  • Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is a systemic treatment designed to find and destroy cancer cells in the body. Your doctor will prescribe a drug or combination of drugs based on your specific type of cancer.
  • Radiation therapy. Radiation therapy delivers high-energy beams to a targeted area in order to kill cancer cells, reduce tumor size, and ease pain. Discover how radiation therapy compares to chemotherapy.
  • Biological therapy. This therapy uses your own immune system to kill cancer cells.
  • Targeted therapy drugs. Targeted therapy drugs attack specific types of cancer cells in a precise manner. Unlike chemotherapy, they prevent damage to healthy cells.
  • Transplant. During a bone marrow transplant, damaged bone marrow is replaced with healthy marrow from a donor. This treatment may involve high-dose chemotherapy and radiation therapy. It’s also known as a stem cell transplant.

Participating in a clinical trial is another treatment option. Clinical trials are research programs that test new treatments that have not yet been approved for general use. They generally have strict eligibility guidelines. Your doctor can help you find information on trials that might be a good fit.

Relative survival statistics show which percentage of people with a cancer diagnosis survived in comparison to people who did not have that cancer. When looking at survival rates, it’s important to remember that they vary from person to person.

These rates reflect the survival of people who were diagnosed years ago. Since treatment is rapidly improving, it’s possible that survival rates are better than these figures indicate.

Some types of bone marrow cancer are much more aggressive than others. Generally speaking, the earlier a doctor diagnoses cancer, the better your chances for survival. Outlook depends on factors unique to you, such as your overall health, your age, and how well you respond to treatment.

Your doctor will be able to provide more information on what you can expect.

General outlook for multiple myeloma

Multiple myeloma is not usually curable, but it can be managed. Treatment can improve overall quality of life.

According to the National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) Program data from 2011 to 2017, the five-year relative survival rates for multiple myeloma are:

Stage of multiple myeloma 5-year relative survival rate (from 2011 to 2017)
Local stage77.5%
Distant stage (cancer has metastasized)54.5%

General outlook for leukemia

Some types of leukemia can be cured. For example, the five-year survival rate for children with acute lymphocytic leukemia is around 90 percent, according to the American Cancer Society.

According to SEER data from 2011 to 2017, the five-year relative survival rate for leukemia is 65 percent. Death rates have fallen an average of 1.9 percent each year from 2010 to 2019.

General outlook for lymphoma

Hodgkin’s lymphoma is very treatable. When found early, both adult and childhood Hodgkin’s lymphoma can usually be cured.

According to SEER data from 2011 to 2017, the five-year relative survival rates for Hodgkin’s lymphoma are:

Stage of Hodgkin’s lymphoma5-year relative survival rate (from 2011 to 2017)
Stage 1 92.2%
Stage 2 94.3%
Stage 3 85.5%
Stage 4 78.5%
Unknown stage 83.5%

According to SEER data from 2011 to 2017, the five-year relative survival rates for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma are:

Stage of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma5-year relative survival rate (from 2011 to 2017)
Stage 1 84.3%
Stage 2 77.1%
Stage 3 71.1%
Stage 4 63.7%
Unknown stage 75.1%

If you’ve received a bone marrow cancer diagnosis, you probably have a lot of questions about what to do next.

Here are a few things to discuss with your oncologist:

  • the specific type and stage of cancer
  • your treatment goals
  • what tests will be conducted to check on your progress
  • what you can do to manage symptoms and get the support you need
  • whether a clinical trial is right for you
  • your outlook based on your diagnosis and overall health

Ask for clarification if you need it. Your oncologist is there to help you understand your diagnosis and treatment options. Communicating openly with them will allow you to make the best decision for your treatment.