Leukemia is a type of cancer of blood-forming tissues, including the bone marrow, which produces an increased number of abnormal or immature white blood cells. These abnormal white blood cells tend to grow faster than normal cells and do not stop from growing when they should. They replace the normal cells and accumulate, occupying space over time. As more time passes, the abnormal cells crowd out the normal blood cells which results illnesses such as anemia, bleeding and infection. Also, these leukemia cells may grow to other organs which cause swelling and pain.
As of now, there are four known main types of leukemia, namely:
- Acute lymphoblastic leukemia or ALL
- Acute myelogenous leukemia or AML
- Chronic lymphoblastic leukemia or CLL
- Chronic myelogenous leukemia or CML
Commonly, adults tend to suffer from CLL and AML. In children, the most common leukemia is ALL. In some cases, however, some children also suffer from AML, CML and juvenile myelomonocytic leukemia or JMML.
Leukemia is treatable. There are now many treatment options formulated to cure leukemia which includes chemotherapy, medical radiation therapy and hormone treatments. Usually, there is only a small chance of being permanently cured; however, longer years of treatment will most likely result to a successful therapy.
Signs and Symptoms
Leukemia symptoms may vary from the type of leukemia you have. Common symptoms include:
- Weight loss
- Easy bruising and bleeding
- Fever and night sweats
- Consistent fatigue
- Frequent infection
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Enlarged spleen
- Bone and joint pains
When to seek medical treatment
It is good to seek your doctor immediately if some symptoms start to show. However, it is very hard to determine if one has leukemia since early symptoms may represent flu or any other common illnesses. If symptoms start to show, consider having a blood test since leukemia causes large amount of abnormal white blood cells and replaces normal blood cells.
Scientists have not yet discovered the exact cause of leukemia but there are factors that increase the risk of having leukemia, known as risk factors. These risk factors include the following:
- Being exposed to large amounts of radiation, benzene and other petrochemicals.
- Having undergone chemotherapy for other cancers.
- Having Down syndrome and other genetic problems. Experts said that people with Down syndrome have higher risks of having leukemia compared to people who do not have Down syndrome. Because of this, experts theorized that people with chromosomal abnormalities have higher risk.
- Viruses such as HTLV-1 or humanT-lymphotropic virus.
- Family history of leukemia
Treatments for leukemia depend, mainly, on the type of leukemia the patient has. The age and physical health of the patient are also to be considered. Treatments include:
- Chemotherapy. It is the main treatment for most types of leukemia. It is the use of powerful medicines to kill leukemia cells. Medicine may be in a form of a pill or may be directly injected in the veins. The number of medicines to take may range from one to several depending on the type of leukemia.
- Biological therapy. This is the use of special drugs that helps your immune system to recognize and attack leukemia cells.
- Radiation therapy. The use of X-rays or other high energy beams to destroy the leukemia cells and shrink enlarged spleen and swollen lymph nodes. This can be used in preparation for stem cell transplant.
- Stem cell transplant. Stem cells rebuild your supply of normal blood cells and boost your immune system. Before a stem cell transplant, high doses of radiation therapy and chemotherapy are given to destroy the leukemia cells in your bone marrow and to make room for new ones. A stem cell transplant is similar to bone marrow transplant.
- Targeted therapy. This is the use of some drugs that specifically attack some vulnerability of the cancer cells.