Jill Clayburgh and Other Celebrities with Blood Cancers

Award-winning actress, Jill Clayburgh, 66, recently passed away. She lived with a blood cancer called chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) for over 20 years and during this time acted in dozens of movies, plays and TV series while living with cancer, according to her IMDb filmography.

Although much remains to be done in cancer research, Ms. Clayburgh’s case shows that medical science has in some cases succeeded in transforming cancer from a fatal disease to a manageable chronic illness that is compatible with a full, rich and productive life.

Since we’ve been covering “the medical facts behind the headlines” of celebrity illnesses, we’ve seen more than a dozen cases of blood cancers (which doctors call hematological malignancies encompassing leukemias and lymphomas).  So we thought it might be a good time to review the basics of these “liquid” tumors derived from normal white blood cells and highlight the most important similarities and differences. By the way, the doctors who take care of patients with these types of tumors are called Hematologist/Oncologists (or just Heme/Onc).

Name Age
Type of Cancer
Andy Whitfield 26 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
Barbara Padilla 36 Hodgkin’s Disease
Bob Bogle 75 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
Ethan Zohn 35 Hodgkin’s Disease
Frank Lautenberg 86 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
Harvey Pekar 70 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
Jill Clayburgh 66 chronic lymphocytic leukemia
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 62 chronic myelogenous leukemia
Mary Travers 72 acute myelogenous leukemia
Michael C. Hall 39 Hodgkin’s Disease
Paul Allen 56 Hodgkin’s Disease (1983), non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (2009)
Rich Cronin 35 acute myelogenous leukemia
Ryan O’Neal 69 chronic myelogenous leukemia

The reason that these leukemias and lymphomas are grouped together is that different white blood cells that develop into these tumors all come from the same origin, namely blood stems cells in your bone marrow that give rise to both our red blood cells (which carry oxygen through our bodies) and white cells of the blood and lymphatic (immune) system that protect us from infections.

The way leukemias and lymphomas are diagnosed are by a pathologist looking through a microscope (and doing other special tests) on samples from the patient’s blood (below left) and bone marrow (below right).








For lymphomas, a surgeon will also biopsy one of more lymph nodes or other tissues and send them to the pathologist for analysis. The pathologist will then send a report back to the Heme/Onc doctor who will decide how to treat the specific disease.

For more information on the various leukemias and lymphomas, click on the links in the table above.

Mark Boguski, M.D., Ph.D. is on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and is a member of the Society for Participatory Medicine, "a movement in which networked patients shift from being mere passengers to responsible drivers of their health" and in which professional health care providers encourage "empowered patients" and value them as full partners in managing their health and wellness.

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