6 Important Things to Know About Leukemia for a Healthy You

orange and silver-colored stethoscope with the word leukemia written next to it
Contributed by: Abshar Faheem

 

The term leukemia comes from the Greek word “white” (leukos) and “blood” (haima). Aptly named, leukemia is a form of cancer that is caused by a rapid multiplication of damaged white blood cells in an out-of-control manner. The overproduction of abnormal cells starts in the bone marrow, where blood cells are formed. As it progresses, it spills into the bloodstream crowding out the other normal cell types.

Types of Leukemia in adults & children:

Based on whether they are acute (fast-growing) or chronic (slow-growing), the four most common forms of leukemia are:

  • Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL)
  • Acute myeloid leukemia (AML)
  • Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)
  • Chronic myeloid leukemia (CML)

Acute leukemia develops at a very rapid pace replacing healthy cells with a large number of abnormal white blood cells that do not function properly.  Chronic leukemia tends to be less severe as compared to acute leukemia and accelerates more slowly.

Active vs Chronic Leukemia Symptoms

Active leukemia comes on suddenly and triggers symptoms quickly. Chronic leukemia produces fewer symptoms and it may take years before a person experiences its effects.  The signs and symptoms of both conditions often differ, depending on the type of leukemia diagnosed. However, there are some similarities between the two conditions. They both cause flu-like symptoms, fatigue, and a generalized feeling of being unwell.

Common leukemia signs and symptoms include: 

  • Persistent fatigue
  • Fever
  • Frequent infections
  • Generalized feeling of being unwell
  • Losing weight without trying
  • Swollen lymph nodes, enlarged liver or spleen
  • Easy bleeding or bruising
  • Recurrent nosebleeds and bleeding gums
  • Tiny red spots in skin (petechiae)
  • Night sweats

Factors that put you at risk

Certain factors increase the likelihood of developing leukemia. It can happen to anyone, but you cannot ‘catch’ leukemia from someone else. Some of the risk factors include:

  • Family history
  • Genetic predisposition
  • Exposure to certain forms of chemicals like benzene
  • Long-term exposure to high doses of radiation
  • History of radiation therapy or chemotherapy
  • Downs syndrome
  • Tobacco use

Screening 

While there are no screening tests specifically designed for leukemia, the condition may be detected through routine blood testing showing an abnormal white cell count. This is one more reason to schedule regular physical examinations with the doctor to evaluate your overall health condition.

Diagnosis 

If your doctor suspects you may have leukemia, he or she may perform a physical exam to check for swollen lymph nodes, spleen, or the liver. The doctor may also order some blood tests to confirm the diagnosis and to:

  • Measure the components of blood including red cells, white cells, and platelets
  • Detect biomarkers to indicate cancer activity
  • Examine various chemicals that can measure the functioning of other organs, including the liver, kidney, heart, and lungs

Some other tests for diagnosis 

If the results of your blood test are suspicious, there are some other tests you may have to undergo to detect abnormalities.

  • Chest X-ray or CAT scan 
  • Spinal tap 
  • Bone marrow aspiration and biopsy

Treatment options

Treatments for leukemia depend on the type of white blood cells affected and whether the disease is acute or chronic, your age, and your overall health, along with the extent of the disease. Options for the management of leukemia include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, biological therapy, targeted therapy, and stem cell therapy.

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