Leukemia

By:    Published: October 3, 2013

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Leukemia is a form of cancer that affects blood-forming tissue, primarily the lymphatic system and bone marrow. The condition is similar to other types of cancer and occurs when white blood cells replicate uncontrollably. Leukemia is actually a blanket term that can refer to a spectrum of related cancers. There are certain types of leukemia that are limited to children, while others occur primarily in adults.

Understanding Leukemia

When bone marrow makes and excessively abnormal amount of white blood cells, the function of other, normal cells is affected. These abnormal white blood cells can be looked at as leukemia cells. As leukemia cells continue to replicate, they start to crowd normal white and red blood cells, along with platelets. White blood cells help the body by fighting infection, red blood cells allow oxygen to be transported throughout the body, and platelets help form blood clots that can neutralize bleeding. Leukemia cells prevent these normal cells from carrying out their regular function. This can wreak havoc on the body.

Types Of Leukemia

The different types of leukemia can be broken down into two different groups, which are determined by how fast the disease develops:

  • Chronic leukemia: This is the group of leukemia that progresses slowly. Symptoms may not be present in early stages because leukemia cells are still able to function in the capacity of normal white blood cells. However, as leukemia cells slowly begin to increase, signs and symptoms of leukemia begin to appear.
  • Acute leukemia: This classification refers to leukemia that gets worse very quickly. In acute leukemia, leukemia cells cannot function like normal white blood cells and since they crowd out normal, functioning cells at such a fast pace, symptoms can grow progressively worse, very quickly.

The different types of leukemia are also classified by the particular white blood cell that is being affected. The four most common types are:

  • Chronic lymphocytic leukemia: this impairs lymphoid cells and typically affects adults only.
  • Chronic myeloid leukemia: this impairs myeloid cells and mainly affects adults as well.
  • Acute lymphocytic leukemia: unlike chronic lymphocytic leukemia, this type affects lymphoid cells, but spreads quickly. It mainly affects adults.
  • Acute myeloid leukemia: affects myeloid cells and spreads quickly, affecting adults and children.

Symptoms

Symptoms of acute leukemia generally include fatigue, shortness of breath, night sweats, paleness of skin or gums, tiny red blood spots under the skin, skin bruising, mild fever, and aching joints and bones.

Chronic leukemia may be asymptomatic for a long period of time since the disease progresses slowly. Usually, the first sign of chronic leukemia is an enlarged lymph node. People with chronic leukemia also feel tired, short of breath, and pain on the left side of the lower abdomen caused by an enlarged spleen. Unexplained weight loss and night sweats commonly occur as a result of the disease. In many situations, medical professionals diagnose leukemia while checking for other health disorders.

Causes/Risk Factors

Leukemia results from genetic mutations that cause abnormal and accelerated cell division. These cancer cells continue to accumulate and inhibit healthy cell production. Eventually, the cancer cells travel through the blood stream and affect the other organs, causing tumor growth and damage.

The precise causes of leukemia are unknown, and the condition can affect people of all ages. People with Down syndrome have a higher risk of developing leukemia. Exposure to secondhand smoke, benzene, natural and artificial ionizing radiation may cause leukemia.

In some cases, leukemia can occur as a secondary cancer that is caused by radiation or chemotherapy treatments for primary cancer.

Tests/Diagnosis

A complete blood count (CBC) test is the first level of diagnostic testing for leukemia. For this test, a lab will analyze a sample blood and count the white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. A sample with a high level of white blood cells and low levels of red blood cells can indicate leukemia.

Using flow cytometry, the doctor can examine the sample in a higher level of detail for a more accurate diagnosis.

If leukemia is a possibility, the doctor may perform a bone marrow biopsy to confirm whether the cells have been affected. During a bone marrow biopsy, the doctor will insert a needle into the patient to obtain a sample of bone and bone marrow. A patient might require sedation for this test.

Other tests include spinal taps, where a doctor takes a sample of spinal fluid using a needle, and cytogenetics, which examines chromosomes in cells.

A doctor may perform a series of X-rays, MRIs, and CT scans in order to visually examine the bones and organs to check for tumor growth and other abnormalities.

Treatments

Treatment plans are individualized to the needs of the patient and the extent of the disease. Important factors include the patient's age, general health, family medical history, and past cancer diagnoses.

In most situations, therapy involves a combination of chemotherapy and radiation. Especially with acute leukemia, patients need aggressive treatment as soon as possible. In many cases, bone marrow transplants are relatively successful. Even though there is no cure for leukemia, which can be a deadly condition, many patients are able to fight the disease with a positive prognosis for a long and healthy life.

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