Spleen cancer is cancer that develops in your spleen — an organ located in the upper-left side of your belly. It’s part of your lymphatic system.
Your spleen’s job is to:
- filter out damaged blood cells
- prevent infection by making white blood cells, known as lymphocytes
- help your blood clot by storing red blood cells and platelets
Spleen cancer can be either primary or secondary. If spleen cancer is primary, it starts in the spleen. If it’s secondary, it starts in another organ and spreads to the spleen. Both types are uncommon.
Most of the time, cancer in the spleen is a lymphoma — a type of cancer that affects the lymphatic system.
Another blood cancer, leukemia, can affect your spleen. Sometimes, leukemia cells gather and build up in this organ.
What are the symptoms?
Cancer that starts in or spreads to the spleen can cause it to enlarge. If this happens, you might:
- feel full after eating
- have pain in the upper-left side of your belly
- develop frequent infections
- bleed easily
- have anemia (low red blood cells)
- experience fatigue
Other symptoms of cancer that affect the spleen may include:
- large lymph nodes
- sweating or chills
- weight loss
- a swollen belly
- chest pain or pressure
- cough or shortness of breath
What causes it and who’s at risk?
You might be more likely to develop lymphoma if you:
- are a man
- are older in age
- have a condition that affects your immune system, such as HIV
- develop an infection, such as Epstein-Barr virus or Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori)
Risk factors for leukemia include:
- a family history of the disease
- exposure to hazardous chemicals, such as benzene
- certain genetic disorders, such as Down syndrome
- a history of chemotherapy or radiation
How is it diagnosed?
If your doctor suspects you have cancer in your spleen, they’ll probably run tests to look for other cancers. You might need bloodwork to check your blood cell counts.
In some cases, a bone marrow test may be necessary. This involves taking a small sample of marrow from your hip bone to look for cancer cells.
Your doctor might also suggest that you have a lymph node removed to see if it contains cancer.
Imaging tests, such as an MRI, CT, or PET scan, may also be performed.
Sometimes, surgeons perform a splenectomy, which is surgery to remove the spleen, to make a diagnosis. Analyzing the spleen after it’s been removed from the body can help doctors determine what kind of cancer you have.
How is it treated?
If your doctor finds cancer in your spleen, you might need a splenectomy as part of your treatment. There are two types:
- Laparoscopic. With this operation, your surgeon will make four small incisions in your belly and use tiny video cameras to see inside. The spleen is removed through a thin tube. Because the incisions are smaller, recovery is generally easier with a laparoscopic procedure.
- Open. An open surgery means your surgeon will make a larger incision in the middle of your belly to remove your spleen. Typically, this type of procedure requires a longer recovery.
Other treatments might be necessary depending on the type of cancer you have. These may include:
- medications that target your tumor (such as biologics or targeted therapies)
- stem cell transplant (a procedure to replace unhealthy bone marrow with healthy bone marrow)
Can it be prevented?
There’s no way to completely prevent cancer in your spleen. But you may be able to reduce your risk.
Some viruses may lead to certain types of cancers. Avoid activities that may put you at risk, like having unprotected sex or sharing needles. Also, treating any known infections promptly may help reduce your chances of developing a cancer that affects your spleen.
Try to stay away from harmful chemicals that could raise your risk. Specifically, you might want to avoid benzene, which is commonly used in making plastics, lubricants, rubbers, dyes, detergents, drugs, and pesticides. It’s also found in gasoline and cigarette smoke.
Some studies have suggested that maintaining a normal weight and eating a healthy diet can lower your risk of cancer. Try to eat lots of fruits and vegetables and exercise daily. Check out this detailed healthy eating guide for help getting started.
What’s the outlook?
If you develop cancer in the spleen, it’s probably a lymphoma. Sometimes, spleen cancer is caused by another type of cancer that’s spread to this organ.
Your outlook will depend on how advanced your cancer is and the type of cancer you have. See your doctor right away if you develop symptoms of spleen cancer. As with most cancers, early detection can lead to a better outcome.