Many New Zealanders would be surprised to know that blood cancers - leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma are the sixth most common form of cancer in New Zealand, combined they are the third biggest killer.
Averaged out, every four hours a New Zealander is diagnosed with a blood cancer or related blood condition, which equates to six people a day.
These diseases are indiscriminate - they affect people of any age and at any time across all ethnic groups. Leukaemia is the most common childhood cancer while lymphoma is the most common cancer in 15 to 24-year-olds.
Blood cancers may require intensive treatment, which may include a life-saving stem cell transplant. The treatment may last for many months, or even years and often needs to start immediately. This specialist treatment is only undertaken in major centres which mean patients and families may have to leave their homes, schools, jobs and other family members and friends for months at a time.
In addition to treatment, emotional and practical support is vital for families impacted by a blood cancer diagnosis. Patients experience anxiety and depression, fear of disease re-occurrence, survivorship guilt, career instability, financial insecurity and relationship breakdowns. This support is offered in New Zealand for blood cancer patients by the NGO Leukaemia & Blood Cancer New Zealand.
"Unlike many other prevalent cancers in most cases we don't know the cause, and so there is no prevention message" says Leukaemia & Blood Cancer New Zealand's CEO, Pru Etcheverry.
"An important aspect of our work is raising awareness about the signs and symptoms of these diseases. In many cases, early diagnosis can be crucial in improving good outcomes for patients."
Although there is a long way to go in finding out definitively what causes blood cancers, advances in treatment are hugely encouraging. Survival rates have increased in recent years with timely, appropriate and innovative treatments. New Zealand's first Leukaemia & Blood Cancer Research Unit which now employs over 20 researchers from across the globe was established last year by Leukaemia & Blood Cancer New Zealand and the University of Auckland.
Genomic research out of units such as this, is seeing the rise of 'precision medicine' where new treatments are specifically targeted to the individual patient's cancer. There are many new medicines being trialled currently in haematology departments across the country, including obinutuzumab for chronic lymphocytic leukaemia, specific inhibitors such as pacritinib for patients with myelofibrosis and massive spleens, and further decisions on funding other medicines are awaited.
"Trials using pembrolizumab (Keytruda),are underway for treatment of myeloma. The results of a phase 1 study in relapsed patients is being presented at the American Society of Haematology meeting this week and results are looking promising" says Dr Hilary Blacklock, Leukaemia & Blood Cancer New Zealand trustee.
This is the same drug which has proven highly effective in treating melanoma. Just this week it has been given low priority for funding by PHARMAC illustrating that moving forward it will be an ongoing challenge to secure funding of these costly treatments which often have less side effects as well as targeting specific blood cancers.
Pru Etcheverry is the chief executive of Leukaemia and Blood Cancer New Zealand.