Not every patient walking through the doors to Shore Cancer Center is there to be treated for cancer. Dr. Tiffany Pompa, a board certified Hematologist Oncologist at Shore Cancer Center, a member of the Penn Cancer Network in Somers Point, treats patients for blood cancers like multiple myeloma and leukemia, but she also treats many other blood disorders.
“While we are a multi-disciplinary comprehensive cancer center, our doctors are also blood doctors and we treat problems such as anemia, an iron deficiency in the blood, with iron infusion. Likewise, we treat patients with hemochromatosis, which is where the body stores too much iron, as well as those with iron metabolism disorders,” said Dr. Pompa. “We treat patients with low platelet counts, low white blood cells, and thalassemia, an inherited blood disorder where the patient has less oxygen-carrying protein and fewer red blood cells.” Other non-cancer related conditions treated by the hematology oncologists at Shore Cancer Center are sickle cell anemia, hemophilia, and platelet disorders to name a few. The doctors perform blood transfusions, bone marrow biopsies and they evaluate and treat many blood and bone marrow cancers.
Hematologists are the Blood Experts
If your primary care physician has recommended that you see a hematologist, it may be because you are at risk for a condition involving your red or white blood cells, platelets, blood vessels, bone marrow or lymph nodes. A hematologist is a doctor who specializes in researching, diagnosing and treating blood disorders and disorders of the lymphatic system, which includes lymph nodes and blood vessels. The hematology oncologists at Shore Cancer Center also treat cancers of the blood and bone marrow.
Always looking deeper for causes and symptoms, Dr. Pompa explained that diseases such as leukemia and multiple myeloma are cancers that begin in the bone marrow. She explained that while leukemia and multiple myeloma have some similar traits, they are quite different. Leukemia begins in the bone marrow as it starts to produce immature white blood cells. “The overproduction of white blood cells from leukemia can cause anemia which is a low red blood cell count, and thrombocytopenia, or low platelet count. In comparison, multiple myeloma affects plasma cells found in the bone marrow causing an increase and overproduction of the plasma cells. Both of these diseases can affect the body’s ability to fight an infection,” said Dr. Pompa.
According to Dr. Pompa, it is unclear what causes multiple myeloma but researchers are looking at genetic causes. Some of the risk factors associated are age, sex (males), a family history of multiple myeloma and a personal history of monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS). She explained that multiple myeloma is a cancer that forms in the plasma cells inside the bone marrow. “White blood cells that normally help fight infection, in multiple myeloma cancerous plasma cells crowd out the healthy blood cells.”
Anemia is a problem for those diagnosed with multiple myeloma because, as Dr. Pompa explained, the plasma cells take over the bone marrow and affect the production of healthy cells. “Anemia can be the first sign of multiple myeloma. Patients with multiple myeloma are also at an increased risk of bone fracture. The cancerous cells spread from inside the bone marrow and damage the bone,” said Dr. Pompa.
Other symptoms of multiple myeloma could include bone pain and fractures, including compression fractures of the spine that can cause severe pain, as well as a headache caused by abnormally high calcium levels in the blood that could last for months, frequent infections, especially respiratory, fatigue, weight loss, general discomfort, an altered mental state, and depression. There could be changes in the kidneys that result in a buildup of fluid in the lower limbs and peripheral neuropathy or a burning pain in hands or feet that is caused by blood thickened due to a high level of proteins. She added that about one-third of people affected by multiple myeloma have no symptoms and it is detected during routine blood work by an elevated level of protein in the blood. Although there is currently no cure for multiple myeloma, it is manageable with treatment for some patients.
Like multiple myeloma, leukemia begins in the bone marrow and impairs the ability to fight infection. The difference is leukemia affects red blood cells and low platelets. According to Dr. Pompa, risk factors for leukemia include exposure to cancer causing agents such as radiation, chemotherapy, age and smoking. Family history of leukemia is not identified as a risk factor.
Some of the early signs of leukemia include fever or chills, weakness, frequent infections, losing weight without trying, swollen lymph nodes, an enlarged liver or spleen, easily bleeding or bruising. Frequent nosebleeds are often a symptom of leukemia and some patients may have tiny red or purplish red spots or leukemia cutis on their trunk or legs. Leukemia is typically diagnosed via a complete blood count after a patient visits their primary care physician to find an answer for their reported symptoms. Leukemia would be suspected if there was an abnormally high number of white blood cells coupled with an abnormally low red blood cell count discovered during an active infection.
Dr. Pompa states emphatically that early detection is important. “It is better to catch leukemia or multiple myeloma in the earliest stages. Researchers have found that multiple myeloma affects the kidneys and that can predate a full-blown diagnosis. Staying up-to-date on regular blood work is an important way to pick up early signs of the disease.” It depends on the type of leukemia a patient is diagnosed with, but Dr. Pompa said normally it is treated with high doses of chemotherapy. She added that the average prognosis for leukemia patients surviving five years or greater is 69 out of 100.
Stem Cell Transplant
Dr. Pompa said stem cell transplant is used to treat both leukemia and multiple myeloma but in different manners. For patients diagnosed with multiple myeloma, the stem cells used to treat the disease are from the patient. In leukemia, the stem cells are from a suitable donor. While used successfully in many patients stem cell transplants are normally reserved for patients who are relatively healthy and do not have many other medical problems.
To make an appointment with Dr. Tiffany Pompa or another physician at the Shore Cancer Center, located in Somers Point, call 609-653-3585. Click here to learn more about Shore Cancer Center.