Susannah York loses battle with bone marrow cancer.

British actress Susannah York has died. The 72-yr-old actress was nominated for an Oscar for the 1969 hit “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” and also starred in “Tom Jones”, “A Man for All Seasons” and other classics from that era. Younger audiences may know her as  Lara, Christopher Reeve’s biological mother in the Superman series of movies.  She died of advanced bone marrow cancer Saturday at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London.

According to the Associated Press: “Her son, the actor Orlando Wells, said York was an incredibly brave woman who did not complain about her illness and a “truly wonderful mother.” He said she went into the hospital on Jan. 6 after experiencing shoulder pain.”

What is the Bone Marrow?

Bone marrow is the spongy tissue inside some of your bones, such as your hip and thigh bones. It contains immature cells, called stem cells. The stem cells can develop into the red blood cells that carry oxygen through your body, the white blood cells that fight infections, and the platelets that help with blood clotting.

What is Bone Marrow Cancer?

Bone marrow cancer is a very generic term that can encompass any cancer that is in the bone marrow. Most cases of bone marrow cancer come from cancer that spreads to the bone from another organ. This is known as secondary bone cancer. When these cancers are examined under a microscope, they resemble the tissue they came from (i.e., breast, prostate, lung, etc).

Primary bone cancer is cancer that forms in cells of the bone itself. Some types of primary bone cancer are osteosarcoma, chondrosarcoma, Ewing’s sarcoma and malignant fibrous histiocytoma.

Other kinds of bone marrow cancers start in the blood forming cells of the bone marrow. These include leukemia, lymphomas, and multiple myeloma.

  • Leukemia – when bone marrow produces abnormal white blood cells called leukemia cells. Unlike normal blood cells, leukemia cells don’t die when they should. They may crowd out normal white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets making it hard for normal blood cells to do their work.
  • Lymphomas – a cancer of the immune cells produced in the lymph nodes can sometimes start in bone marrow.
  • Multiple Myeloma – cancer that develops from plasma cells,  a type of white blood cell in the bone marrow that make antibodies. Antibodies are part of the immune system which  help protect the body from germs and other harmful substances. Each type of plasma cell makes a different antibody. When a plasma cell becomes cancerous, it divides into more cells in an uncontrolled manner.  Myeloma cells make antibodies called M proteins and other proteins. These proteins can collect in the blood, urine, and in organs and can cause damage to those organs.

Bone Marrow Cancer Symptoms

Bone marrow cancer most commonly occurs in the shafts of long bones. Although the first signs of bone marrow cancer inevitably vary from patient to patient, symptoms may include fever, fatigue, poor appetite and weight loss. However, the early symptoms of bone marrow cancer may be so sporadic and subtle that the patient may not see a doctor until the bone marrow cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

Other possible symptoms of bone marrow cancer may include:

  • Pain
  • A hard lump on the bone
  • Swelling, stiffness, or tenderness in the bone (i.e., in or near a joint)
  • Restriction of movement
  • Unexplained fractures
  • Anemia (low red blood cells)
  • Weakness, shortness of breath, dizziness
  • Lowered resistance to infections
Michele R. Berman, M.D. was Clinical Director of The Pediatric Center, a private practice on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. from 1988-2000, and was named Outstanding Washington Physician by Washingtonian Magazine in 1999. She was a medical internet pioneer having established one of the first medical practice websites in 1997. Dr. Berman also authored a monthly column for Washington Parent Magazine.

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