Leukemia – Symptoms, Causes, Treatment

Leukemia is the cancer that develops in blood forming tissues like bone marrow and lymphatic system. Leukemia can be acute (quickly become worse) or chronic (slow cancer). It can either be lymphocytic or myelocytic leukemia. What exactly causes leukemia is still a mystery. But one can reduce the risk factors. Common symptoms of leukemia are loss of weight, ongoing infections, bleeding and night sweats. Chemotherapy and radiation treatment are the major options of treatment and the outlook depends on the age and extent of cancer.

Blood cells are produced by the bone marrow or stem cells. Our body is tuned to produce red blood cells and white blood cells in predefined manner. But in people with leukemia there will be excess production of WBC which will outgrow the level of RBC. Consequently it will affect the growth of healthy blood cells destroying them progressively leading to leukemia.

Types :

Leukemia is of two basic types namely acute and chronic.

  • Chronic leukemia develops gradually and get worse slowly and not overnight. An expert doctor can identify chronic leukemia on routine checkups even if there are no symptoms.
  • Acute leukemia is dangerous since it develops quickly and worsens your health rapidly. The white blood cells of the affected person cannot do its function anymore and more number of cancerous cells develops in the body.

Some doctors classify leukemia based on which type of WBS is affected. It can affect lymphoid cells (CLL), myeloid cells (CML), lymphoblastic cells (ALL) and acute myeloid cells (AML).

Leukemia Symptoms :

There may be difference in the symptoms of leukemia based on the type of cells that is affected. Some of the general signs of leukemia are persistent fever, chills, fatigue, frequent infection, loss of weight, swelling of lymph nodes in the liver or spleen, small red lesions on the skin, nosebleeds, sharp bone pain and night sweats. The symptoms given above are vague and are present for flu and other type of fever also. Hence it is difficult to diagnose leukemia in initial stages.

Causes :

Exact reason for leukemia is unknown. It is believed to develop due to defective gene mutation. DNA gives instructions for the cells to grow and multiply and die after some period. But for some reasons, the cells do not die and this causes overcrowding of older cells which would eventually arrest the growth of healthy blood cells. This process occurs in the body slowly and gradually in chronic leukemia and occurs quickly and suddenly in case of acute type.

Who Are At Risk?

Any person who is overly exposed to radiation can develop acute or chronic leukemia in later part of his life. Exposure to atomic bomb radiation can increase the risk of developing leukemia. Any individual who is undergoing chemo or radiation therapy for cancer (on any part) has high risk of getting leukemia.

Exposure to poisonous chemicals like benzene and smoking increases the risk of developing leukemia. Certain people with inherited genetic problems like Down syndrome and people with chronic blood disorders are at high risk of getting leukemia. A person with family history of leukemia or having close sibling with leukemia may develop chronic leukemia.


Diagnosis :

Many times, leukemia is diagnosed during routine blood test done for some other issues. In case of suspicion your doctor may order for complete blood profile (to check the count of WBC) and bone marrow test (for testing the sample in the lab). Once presence of leukemia is confirmed, he may order for additional tests for determining the exact stage of the blood cancer.

Treatment :

Each individual affected with leukemia will not undergo the same treatment since the mode of therapy differs widely in accordance with type of cancer, your age, health condition and stage of cancer. The aim of the treatment is to kill the existing cancer cells and to prevent further formation of cancer cells. Once there is remission preventive treatment is started with maintenance or consolidation therapy. People with chronic leukemia may not require immediate treatment. The doctor will monitor your health regularly to check for any abnormal symptoms. Sometimes he would give maintenance therapy for them to control the growth of cancerous cells.

  • Chemotherapy :

It is the best effective form of leukemia treatment. Drugs are given either in the form of oral tablets or as injection intravenously. For some people a catheter is placed in the upper chest region to inject drugs easily. For people affected with leukemia in the brain cells, the doctor would use intrathecal chemotherapy wherein drugs are injected directly into the cerebrospinal fluid or given under the scalp using special catheter. The patient will have to undergo chemotherapy several times based on the intensity of cancer and location of leukemia. After completing one cycle of chemo, rest period is given which is followed by second chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy side effects vary directly with the nature of drug given and the intensity of doses. It can make one prone to several infections, to develop frequent bruises and cause extreme fatigue and hair loss. It can also cause loss of appetite, vomiting, nausea and reduce the fertility rate. A person with chronic leukemia can receive specific drugs like Imatinib using targeted therapy which would eventually arrest the making of cancerous cells. It can cause side effects like increase in weight, vomiting, nausea and swelling of abdomen.

  • Biological therapy is given for some people to improve the body’s immune system which would produce effective healthy cells to fight against abnormal cells.
  • Radiation therapy is often combined with other types of therapy to get the best outcome. Depending on the case, radiation is given either on specific part of on the whole body.
  • Stem cell transplantation is done to encourage the bone marrow to produce more number of healthy cells. Often the patient would undergo chemo session before stem cell transplant.

You can discuss with your doctor openly about the drug used and its side effects before starting any therapy. Leukemia can cause various other health problems. Hence you need to get supportive care from friends and family. You have to learn to fight against infections, anemia and other dental problems which are common side effects of leukemia.

Ensure that you are eating healthy diet and do regular exercises to maintain your weight. Get enough rest whenever you feel tired. Be active and participate in various activities to keep yourself cheerful. Follow up care is more important in any type of cancer. Hence go for regular checkups to prevent any relapse. You can always join a support team to share your feelings with other patients.

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