Minor symptoms; major consequences

September 7, 2022

Seemingly-minor and easily-dismissed ailments might be signs of a blood cancer, often deemed a “hidden cancer” because its symptoms are so deceptive, warns Leukaemia & Blood Cancer New Zealand

Minor or major – could that simple ailment hide a serious cancer diagnosis?


Is it common to see patients who are always tired? Do they want a treatment for a prolonged itchiness? Do they attribute night sweats to hormones? Unexplained weight loss thought to be stress? These present as minor issues individually – but as a cluster could be more sinister.

September is blood cancer awareness month, and Leukaemia & Blood Cancer NZ (LBC) is asking nursing and support staff to be mindful that if patients have any of the seemingly minor and easily dismissed ailments, they might be signs of a blood cancer, often deemed a “hidden cancer” because its symptoms are so deceptive.
Symptoms include persistent fatigue, frequent fevers, repeat infections, unexplained weight loss, itchy skin, excessive night sweats, anaemia, unusual bruising, bone pain and swollen lymph nodes. Often a person will experience more than one of them and particularly if they are a cluster, LBC suggests getting a blood test to rule out blood cancer.

Every day eight people are diagnosed with blood cancer in New Zealand, and three people will die from one of the many blood cancers. Blood cancer can strike anyone at any time, and often with little warning because symptoms are often mistaken for other conditions.

Living in a pandemic means people may be reluctant to seek medical appointments unless it is something urgent. Globally, blood cancer diagnoses have dropped by approximately 40 per cent during COVID-19, which might be indicative of people delaying a visit to their GP or specialist for fear of unnecessarily exposing themselves to a risk of COVID.

Emma Barker
Emma Barker

“There will be people who are undiagnosed, and that delay in being diagnosed may mean a difference for them in terms of how well they come out of this journey, because their treatment options may be reduced,” Emma Barker, the Head of Support Services and Operations for Leukaemia & Blood Cancer New Zealand, says.

“We want to help medical professionals to understand the symptoms and learn to spot them early. Our support services team is conscious that patients often don’t think their symptom is serious.”

If nursing staff can be cognisant of that, and ask if someone presents with one symptom whether there are other symptoms, they can intervene much earlier.

“We often have patients tell us that it can take months to get a diagnosis, because symptoms are often thought to be other, unrelated conditions, and correct, prompt diagnosis can be tricky,” Barker says.

Blood cancers occur when abnormal blood cells start growing out of control, interrupting the function of normal blood cells that fight infection and produce new blood cells. Among literally hundreds of forms, the three most common types are leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma. Leukaemia is the number one cancer in children, while lymphoma is one of the most common cancers in teens and young adults. Blood cancers combined are the fourth most prevalent cancer in New Zealand. There is no known cause for blood cancer, and there are an estimated 21,000 people in New Zealand living with a blood cancer.

“There will be people who are undiagnosed, and that delay in being diagnosed may mean a difference for them”

A CBC blood test could detect blood cancer – if too many or too few of a type of blood cell or abnormal cells are found. A bone marrow biopsy may help confirm a diagnosis of a blood cancer.

Leukaemia & Blood Cancer NZ (LBC) supports health care professionals including doctors, nurses, specialists, psychologists and those working in allied health with information, workshops and conference content. Many of the support team are registered nurses and have extensive nursing experience.

LBC also helps patients, and their whānau and carers, while they are going through treatment and through survivorship. This includes providing emotional support and practical help, and information on specific diseases and treatments.

LBC can provide financial assistance, such as food or petrol vouchers, or help with counselling support. The charity also runs support and education sessions throughout New Zealand for patients and whānau, and hosts a wide range of education materials on their website, including disease-specific booklets and fact sheets.

Common blood cancer symptoms:

(Usually in a cluster)

  • Regular and frequent fevers, chills
  • Persistent fatigue, weakness, dizzy spells
  • Loss of appetite, nausea
  • Headaches
  • Unusual bleeding/bruising
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Night sweats
  • Bone/joint pain
  • Abdominal discomfort
  • Shortness of breath
  • Frequent infections
  • Itchy skin or skin rash
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck, underarms or groin

For more information on LBC’s services and information tools go to www.leukaemia.org.nz

You can also access an online referral form.

To get A4 posters with the symptoms for your waiting area, email marketing@leukaemia.org.nz

This advertising content was paid for by Leukaemia & Blood Cancer New Zealand. Hosted content may not represent the views of Kaitiaki Nursing New Zealand or the New Zealand Nurses Organisation.