During September’s Blood Cancer Awareness Month, Regional One Health’s medical oncology specialists are reaching out to educate the public about these complex diseases.

They say blood cancers become more common as patients age, but advances in treatment mean people are living longer and better.

It’s important to see an oncologist who specializes in blood cancers, as they have additional expertise that allows them to make an accurate diagnosis and develop the optimal treatment plan.

Specialized care can help patients diagnosed with blood cancers live longer and better through improved application of modern diagnostic tools and targeted treatments.

Regional One Health’s new medical oncology practice includes expert physicians who trained with the leading pioneers in treating these conditions. Swapna Thota, MD and Noura Elsedawy, MBBCh noted there are several hundred types of blood cancer and plasma disorders, including very rare conditions, and they can offer the highly customized treatment patients need.

“Blood cancers are very complex,” Dr. Thota said. “It takes an expert to recognize these illnesses and provide the best treatment. By offering subspecialists in leukemia, lymphoma and plasma cell disorders, we can provide the most cutting-edge care for patients.”

Here’s what they want patients to know:

Who is at risk?

“These diseases are usually diseases of older adults, because as the blood stem cells age they start accumulating genetic mistakes that eventually evolve to a blood cancer,” Dr. Elsedawy said. “The average age is usually between 65 and 70 years.”

Swapna Thota, MD specializes in treating leukemia and rare blood disorders. “Blood cancers are very complex,” she said. “It takes an expert to recognize these illnesses and provide the best treatment.”

Specific blood cancers like myeloma is 2 to 3 times more prevalent in African Americans, and more common among men. Smoking, exposure to radiation, having multiple members in a family that have blood cancer or certain chemicals can also increase risk.

What symptoms should I watch for?

Blood cancers can cause a variety of symptoms, including persistent fatigue, frequent infections, fever, new back or abdominal pain, swelling in the feet and weight loss. Patients might also notice unexplained bleeding or bruising or broken bones from seemingly minor falls or injuries.

When should I see an oncologist?

Patients typically see Dr. Thota, Muhammad Saad Hamid, MD or Dr. Elsedawy after being referred by a primary care provider or a specialist they are seeing for other issues. Those physicians can identify when a patient is at higher risk or needs to be screened for blood cancers.

What can I expect in terms of diagnosis?

Oncologists use lab work, bone marrow biopsy, lymph node biopsy and high-definition imaging. There are several main groups of conditions, all of which include numerous specific diagnoses.

Dr. Hamid specializes in treating lymphoma, or cancer of the lymph nodes. Working closely with a multidisciplinary team he treats complex cases of Hodgkins lymphoma and B & T-cell lymphomas.

Dr. Thota specializes in leukemias, an aggressive form of blood cancer, and other rare forms of blood disorders such as aplastic anemia and PNH.

Dr. Elsedawy is an expert in plasma cell diseases:

Noura Elsedawy, MBBCh is an expert in plasma cell diseases. “A specialist in blood and plasma disorders can help you reach an accurate diagnosis and find the treatment that works best for you.”

MGUS (Monoclonal Gammopathy of Undetermined Significance) is an abnormal protein in the blood. Patients don’t have symptoms but do need annual screening because the condition carries a 1 percent risk of developing into cancer. If patients with this abnormal protein experience kidney, nervous system or skin symptoms, they have MGCS, or Monoclonal Gammopathy of Clinical Significance.

AL Amyloidosis patients have an abnormal protein that builds up around organs like the heart, kidneys and GI tract, potentially leading to organ failure.

Multiple Myeloma occurs when abnormal plasma cells become cancerous and crowd out healthy bone marrow cells.

What does treatment involve?

Dr. Elsedawy, Dr. Hamid and Dr. Thota take a comprehensive approach, working with oncology-certified nurses and medical assistants, social workers, clinical pharmacists specializing in cancer care, nutritionists, rehab therapists, transplant experts, and other specialists.

“It takes a multidisciplinary team,” Dr. Thota said. “Many of our patients have comorbidities like obesity or high blood pressure, and that can’t be ignored. We manage those issues hand-in-hand with their cancer care, and we can take care of extremely complex patients.”

Dr. Thota said lymphoma and leukemia treatments have become more targeted in recent years. Along with medications, “We also work closely with transplant teams to provide a curative approach if we can, even for older patients,” she said.

Dr. Elsedawy said plasma cell disorders are treated with specialized medications that target the plasma cells themselves. Some patients can take oral medications, and those who need IV drugs are treated in Regional One Health’s outpatient infusion center. For multiple myeloma and AL Amyloidosis, a bone marrow transplant or a stem cell transplant may be an option.

Muhammad Saad Hamid, MD, a lymphoma specialist, works closely with a multidisciplinary team he treats complex cases of Hodgkins lymphoma and B & T-cell lymphomas.

Dr. Elsedawy noted, “As a university-based practice, we offer novel and cutting-edge therapies.”

What are the outcomes?

Dr. Elsedawy said plasma disorders are typically considered chronic conditions: “These diseases are usually not considered curable, but with proper therapy, patients can grow old and have long-term survival. Median survival rates for patients have doubled over the past 20 years.”

While those numbers are lower among patients ages 75 and older, “New medications are not as hard on the body, so older patients can continue treatment without compromising overall quality of life,” she said.

Dr. Thota said it is possible to cure some forms of lymphoma and leukemia. For lymphoma, currently the five-year survival rate for both diseases is 83 percent for all patients, with the rate falling to less than 70 percent for patients over age 75.

Access the care you need

Dr. Elsedawy encourages patients who are diagnosed with a blood or plasma disorder to see an oncologist specializing in these diseases.

“A general oncologist may see one multiple myeloma patient every few months, where we see these patients all the time,” she said. “That’s why we recommend you get an opinion from a specialist in blood and plasma disorders. We can help you reach an accurate diagnosis and find the treatment that works best for you.”

To learn more about Regional One Health’s medical oncology service, call 901-545-6262 or visit https://www.regionalonehealth.org/oncology-main-campus/