The body is composed of numerous types of blood cells, including platelets, red blood cells (RBCs), and white blood cells (WBCs).
Leukemia is generally defined as a cancer of the white blood cells.
The WBCs play a critical role in the body’s immune system.
They are responsible for shielding the body from foreign substances such as viruses, bacteria, and other abnormal cells.
When a person has leukemia, the WBCs are unable to function like they normally should.
Furthermore, they can multiply at a rapid pace, which can cause them to displace other normal cells.
In general, WBCs are made in the bone marrow.
However, there are other kinds that are also produced in the thymus gland, spleen and lymph nodes.
After being produced, the WBCs are distributed throughout the body via blood and lymph, which is the fluid that flows in the lymphatic system.
What Are Its Symptoms?
The typical symptoms of leukemia include the following:
- Constant fatigue and weakness
- Tenderness and pain in the bones
- Unintended loss of weight
- Chills or fever
- Excessive sweating, particularly during the evening (aka “night sweats”)
- Bruising or bleeding easily
- Swollen, painless lymph nodes, often in the armpits and neck
- Recurrent infections
- Petechiae or red spots
- Spleen or liver enlargement
Oftentimes, leukemia may also spread through other parts of the body, such as:
- Gastrointestinal tract
Once leukemia spreads to an organ, it could also generate some specific symptoms.
For instance, if the cancer cells spread to the central nervous system, symptoms such as seizures, headaches, confusion, nausea and loss of muscle control may occur.
What Causes It?
While the precise cause of leukemia remains unknown, there are a number of risk factors that have been detected, such as:
- Radiation exposure
- Previous cancer treatment with radiation or chemotherapy
- Family history
- Blood disorders (e.g. myelodysplastic syndrome)
- Genetic disorders (e.g. Down syndrome)
- Exposure to certain chemicals (e.g. benzene)
- Smoking, which is a risk factor for acute myeloid leukemia
What Are Its Different Types?
There are two types of onset of leukemia – the chronic (slow) or acute (sudden) onset.
In chronic leukemia, the early symptoms tend to be really minor and the disease develops at a slow pace.
On the other hand, in acute leukemia, the cancer cells reproduce at a rapid rate.
Leukemia may also be categorized according to the kind of cell involved.
Lymphocytic leukemia mainly involves lymphocytes while myelogenous leukemia involves myeloid cells.
These are immature blood cells that would supposedly turn into monocytes or granulocytes.
Essentially, there are four primary kinds of leukemia. These are:
Acute myelogenous leukemia (AML)
This is the most common type of leukemia and can befall in both adults and children.
This type of leukemia has a five-year survival rate of 26.9 percent.
Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL)
This type of leukemia is more common amongst children.
According to the NCI, there are around 6,000 newly diagnosed ALL cases per year, with a 68.2 percent five-year survival rate.
Chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML)
CML mostly occurs among adults.
NCI approximates around 9000 newly diagnosed cases of CML annually.
There is a 66.9 percent five-year survival rate for this type of leukemia.
Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)
This kind of leukemia is more prevalent among individuals who are 55 years of age and older.
The occurrence of CLL among kids is very rare.
NCI estimates that there are around 20,000 new CLL cases that are diagnosed every year.
For CLL, the five-year survival rate is at 83.2 percent.
One extremely rare sub-type of CLL is the hairy cell leukemia.
Under a microscope, the manifestation of cancerous lymphocytes can be observed, thus the name.
How Is It Diagnosed?
If a patient is suffering most symptoms and has any of the risk factors, then the doctor may suspect the possibility of leukemia.
First, the doctor will conduct a background and history check and order a physical examination.
However, a physical examination alone will not be sufficient to diagnose leukemia.
On top of the physical examination, other procedures such as imaging tests, blood tests, and biopsies will be conducted to fully diagnose if it is leukemia.
For instance, the doctor may use tissue biopsies to look for leukemia.
The doctor may also execute a blood count to check the levels of blood cells or check the blood for any abnormal cells.
After the leukemia is diagnosed, the doctor will then have to stage the cancer.
For cases of AML and ALL, staging is done by examining the cancer cells under a microscope to determine the kind of cell concerned.
Meanwhile, for ALL and CLL cases, the count of the white blood cells during diagnosis will be used as the basis.
AML and CML may also be staged by looking for myeloblasts in the bone marrow and the blood.
How Is It Treated?
Treatment of leukemia is normally conducted by a hematologist-oncologist.
This refers to a doctor who specializes in cancer and blood disorders.
The treatment procedure to be done vary depending on the cancer type and stage.
This is because there are some cancers that progress quickly while there are some that develop slowly and will not need immediate attention.
Generally, treatment would involve one or more of the following procedures:
- Radiation therapy – high-energy radiation is used to impair the cancer cells and prevent them from multiplying. This procedure may be applied to the whole body or to a particular area.
- Chemotherapy – drugs are administered in order to destroy the cancer cells. It may involve only one kind of drug or a combination of various types.
- Biological or immune therapy – utilizes treatments that enable the body’s immune system to detect and damage leukemia cells.
- Targeted therapy – administering of specific medications to attack cancer cells.
- Stem cell transplantation – removing the affected bone marrow and replacing it with a healthy one, which can come from either you or a donor. Otherwise known as a bone marrow transplant.
If you have leukemia or believe that you are at risk for it, seek medical attention immediately.