What are the symptoms of cancer of the spleen?

Spleen cancer typically develops when cancer in another part of the body, most often lymphomas and leukemia, spread to this fist-sized organ.

The spleen is under the rib cage on the left side of the body. It is part of the lymphatic system and plays a part in helping the body fight off disease. This role means it can also be considered part of the immune system.

The spleen performs the following functions for the body:

filtering blood

removing old, abnormal, or damaged blood cells

storing blood cells

fighting infections

sending blood to the liver

It is also possible to live without a spleen, although it is a very important organ.

Doctors may remove the spleen due to injury or illnesses, including cancer. When this happens, someone’s life is not substantially changed, but they may become more susceptible to infection and need to take precautions.

What causes spleen cancer?

The spleen is an organ that filters and stores blood.

Cancer that first starts in the spleen is a rare occurrence.

Researchers believe it happens in less than 2 percent of all lymphomas and 1 percent of all non-Hodgkin lymphomas.

A form of cancer that does develop in the spleen is called splenic marginal zone lymphoma or SMZL, which is considered a kind of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Since most cancers affecting the spleen are cancers that spread from another place, understanding the causes of spleen cancer means looking at what causes these other diseases.

Most cancers that start in the spleen are a kind of lymphoma or leukemia. Most of the time, it is not possible to find a specific cause of lymphoma, according to Lymphoma Action.

Researchers have, nonetheless, identified factors that may increase the risk of developing lymphoma, including:

being older

being male

having a relative with lymphoma

having immunity complications

being exposed or vulnerable to infections

Several studies have identified a link between chronic infection with the hepatitis C virus, and the risk of developing a specific kind of cancer known as B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma, which can lead to spleen cancer.

Researchers have also identified possible links between spleen cancer and environmental hazards, such as thorium dioxide or monomer vinyl chloride.

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What are the symptoms?

People with spleen cancer can have a variety of symptoms or none at all in some cases. Roughly 25 percent of people with SMZL do not show symptoms.

The most common symptoms of spleen cancer are:

enlarged spleen, which may become twice as large as normal

pain in the abdomen, usually in the upper left corner

weakness

unexplained weight loss

fatigue

fever

night sweats

high levels of lymphocytes in the blood

It is essential, however, to remember that an enlarged spleen does not necessarily mean that an individual has spleen cancer.

Signs there might be a problem

Swollen lymph nodes may be a sign of spleen cancer.

Spleen cancer is very often due to lymphomas and non-Hodgkin lymphoma in particular, so it is helpful to be aware of signs of this disease.

Signs include:

swollen, but usually not painful lymph nodes in the armpits, groin, and sides of the neck

feeling exhausted

alternating chills and fever

bruising easily

frequent infections

swollen, sometimes sore, belly

poor appetite

feeling full on very little food

losing weight without trying

When to see a doctor

People with any of the symptoms listed above should see a doctor for checks and treatment if it is necessary.

Keep in mind that some thing other than cancer many cause these symptoms. For example, an infection can lead to swollen lymph nodes.

Since there is no screening test for spleen cancer, and the disease can develop without symptoms, it is always wise to have a doctor check any signs that are concerning.

How is it diagnosed?

Doctors use a variety of tools to diagnose spleen cancer. The most direct and conclusive method is surgical removal and testing of a sample of the spleen tissue. This is also the most invasive, and doctors prefer to use other approaches first.

Alternatives include:

taking a comprehensive medical history

imaging with ultra-sound or tomography

requesting blood work

arranging bone marrow analysis

Doctors will be looking for clues to help them diagnose and possibly treat spleen cancer while interviewing the individual about:

history of chronic hepatitis C or B

history of autoimmune diseases

treatment with immune-suppressing medication

signs of a significantly enlarged spleen

What are the treatment options?

Chemotherapy may be used to treat spleen cancer.

Common treatments for spleen cancer include:

surgery called splenectomy that removes part of or the entire spleen

radiation therapy

chemotherapy

Historically, splenectomy was often the first treatment used, and studies have shown that most people who had this surgery did not need any further treatment for 5 years.

However, treatment with a human-made antibody called rituximab has been shown to be almost as effective as surgery at reducing symptoms in people with SMZL. Also, it may be easier to use than surgery.

Individuals without symptoms do not necessarily need to receive treatment, but they are urged to see their doctor every 6 months for blood tests and evaluation. This approach is sometimes called “watchful waiting.”

Prevention

Doctors have linked chronic hepatitis C infections to spleen cancer and other forms of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. So, taking action to avoid Hepatitis C can help people reduce their risk of this disease.

Hepatitis C is carried in the blood, so it is essential to:

Use caution when getting a tattoo or piercing and be sure equipment is sterilized.

Use condoms if having sex with a person who has not been tested for hepatitis C and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Follow safety procedures for using and disposing of needles in a healthcare setting.

Never share needles.

Infection with HIV and HTLV-1 may also increase the risk of developing non-Hodgkin lymphoma and spleen cancer. Following safe sex guidelines and the same preventive measures used against Hepatitis C can be effective against carrying these viruses.

Eating a lot of high-fat foods, and the resulting excess weight gain, have both been linked to a greater risk of developing non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Adopting a healthful, low-fat diet and maintaining a suitable weight are positive self-care practices that can reduce the risk of developing many other serious and chronic diseases too.

Takeaway

The outlook for people with spleen cancer depends on:

If it developed in the spleen or originated elsewhere in the body.

What type of cancer it is.

How far advanced the disease is.

What other health problems the individual may have.

SMZL is described by scientists as “indolent,” which means it usually grows slowly, and has a positive influence on overall outlook. About 30 percent of the time, however, individuals develop a more aggressive form of the disease.

For a more personalized outlook, people should see their doctor, as soon as symptoms present themselves.

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