In this article we will look at:
- What is leukemia?
- How does leukemia occur?
- Who is prone to leukemia?
- What are the causes of leukemia?
- What are the symptoms of leukemia? How is leukemia diagnosed?
- What are the complications of leukemia?
- What is the treatment for leukemia?
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What is leukemia?
Leukemia is the cancer of blood-forming cells in the bone marrow (the soft tissue inside most bones).
It is a condition where there is an overproduction of white blood cells that are a part of the immune system of the body, which defends the body against intruding germs and infections.
How does leukemia occur?
Leukemia begins in the immature or still developing cells of the bone marrow, found in the central cavities of bones. The bone marrow produces all forms of blood cells, such as:
- red blood cells which carry oxygen to the tissues of the body
- white blood cells that defend the body against infection
- platelets that help the body form clots to stop bleeding and accelerate healing
Thus, the bone marrow provides the body each day with a constant supply of fresh, healthy cells. In a patient suffering from leukemia, the white blood cells do not mature normally, and instead keep growing in number and interfere with the production of other blood cells.They are also unable to defend the body against any form of infection the way normal white blood cells do.
There are four main types of leukemia. This disease is classified based on its speed of progression and the type of cells involved. Depending on how fast it progresses there are two types of leukemia:
- Acute leukemia. In acute leukemia, the abnormal blood cells are immature and cannot carry out the normal functions of defending the body against infections. They multiply rapidly and impede the growth of other blood cells.
- Chronic leukemia. There are various types of chronic leukemias, some of which produce too many cells and some too few cells. In chronic leukemia more mature blood cells are involved which replicate more slowly and can function normally for a period of time. Some types of chronic leukemia can go undiagnosed for years as they produce no symptoms.
Depending on the type of cells involved there are two types of leukemia:
- Lymphocytic leukemia. This type of leukemia affects the lymphoid cells that form the lymphatic tissue which makes up your immune system.
- Myelogenous leukemia. This type of leukemia affects the myeloid cells that give rise to red blood cells, white blood cells and platelet-producing cells.
Who is prone to leukemia?
People who are prone to leukemia include:
- those with a family history of leukemia
- those who are chronic smokers
- those with genetic disorders such as Down syndrome
- those who suffer from blood disorders, such as myelodysplastic syndrome
- those who have undergone previous treatment for cancer with chemotherapy, or radiation
- those who have been exposed to high levels of radiation
- those who are constantly exposed to chemicals such as benzene
What are the causes of leukemia?
Although the exact cause of leukemia has still not been identified, some factors which put people at a higher risk of leukemia are:
- maternal fetal transmission
- hair dyes
- artificial ionizing radiation
- viruses - HTLV-1 (human T-lymphotropic virus) and HIV (human immunodeficiency virus)
- benzene and some petrochemicals
- alkylating chemotherapy agents used in previous cancers
What are the symptoms of leukemia? How is leukemia diagnosed?
The symptoms of leukemia include:
Poor blood clotting: Immature white blood cells disturb the production of blood platelets, which are crucial for blood clotting. The patient thus heals very slowly and also bruises and bleeds easily.
Weak immune system: In leukemia since the white blood cells do not function normally they are not able to protect the body against infections.
A few other common leukemia symptoms include:
An oncologist can diagnose leukemia after a routine blood test. He will first ask about your medical history and perform a physical test to check for swollen lymph nodes. He may then also suggest a few other tests such as:
- Blood Tests: to check the complete blood count of white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets.
- Biopsy: in which samples of tissues are removed from your body to look for the cancer cells. This is the surest way to find the leukemia cells in the bone marrow.
Some additional tests include:
- Cytogenetics: in which the chromosomes of cells are checked from the samples of blood, bone marrow, or lymph nodes to determine the type of leukemia.
- Spinal Tap: to remove cerebrospinal fluid from your lower spine to check for leukemia cells.
- Chest X-Ray: to check for swollen lymph nodes or other signs of disease in the chest.
What are the complications of leukemia?
The common complications of leukemia are:
- excess bleeding
- bone and joint pain
- enlarged spleen
- continuous infections
What is the treatment for leukemia?
Medical Treatment for Leukemia
Your doctor determines the leukemia treatment options based on the severity of your condition, age, overall health, the type of leukemia you have, and to which parts of your body it has spread. The most common treatments for leukemia include:
- Biological therapy
- Targeted therapy
Stem cell transplant
A groundbreaking study shows that exercising can be very beneficial to patients suffering from leukemia. However, please consult your doctor for his approval before deciding on an exercise regimen. Weight training, swimming, jogging and walking are excellent forms of exercises for leukemia patients. While training with weights, it is imperative that you use very light weights, to prevent fatigue and injury
Questions answered by trusted doctors
Did you know?
Leukemia in Indian children
In India, every year nearly 25,000 children are diagnosed with this leukemia.
Among the list of top cancers in India
Leukemia is ranked among the list top cancers affecting Indians.
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