Leukemia is a disease that affects the blood. It is actually considered cancer of the blood, affecting how the blood cells are produced. In people with leukemia, there is an uncontrolled proliferation of blood cells including the bone marrow and the lymphatic system (part of the immune system which carries fluids to the heart). Leukemia especially affects the white blood cells, our bodies’ defense against infections. Normally, these white blood cells are produced in an orderly manner, based on your body’s needs. In people with leukemia, this process occurs abnormally and the bone marrow produces more white blood cells than the body needs which do not work properly. Eventually these unhealthy cells can outnumber healthy cells, causing problems in that individual.
The symptoms of leukemia can mimic those of other diseases, so it’s quite hard to tell just by simple observation if a person is suffering from leukemia. Symptoms include fever, chills, fatigue and weakness, which sounds symptomatic of a common cold. Other symptoms include unintentional weight loss, frequent infections, bleeding or bruising easily, swelling of the lymph nodes, observing tiny red spots in the skin, profuse sweating and pain in the bones.
The exact cause of leukemia isn’t yet well-understood by doctors, but it is believed to be cause by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Risk factors for leukemia include:
- Family history – having a close relative with leukemia increases risk of getting it
- Smoking – cigarette smoking increases the risk of acute myelogenous leukemia
- Having been treated for cancer—if a person has been previously treated for cancer, the chemotherapy and radiation may have had an effect on the blood’s health
- Certain genetic diseases—some genetic diseases such as Down’s syndrome increases the risk of leukemia
- Having blood disorders—if you have an existing blood condition, you may have an increased risk of leukemia
- Exposure to radiation—people exposed to abnormally high levels of radiation such as in a nuclear reactor accidents are at a higher risk.
- Exposure to certain chemicals – chemicals such as benzene can increase the chance of developing leukemia
There are several types of leukemia and each will require a different approach to treatment. Some are also more treatable than others, while the others might have a higher mortality rate.
The leukemia is first classified into how fast the disease progresses.
- Acute leukemia—this is a disease that progresses quickly because the abnormal blood cells multiply very fast. In the case of acute leukemia, the abnormal blood cells are immature cells which can’t perform their job properly. This type of leukemia usually requires an aggressive form of treatment.
- Chronic leukemia—this type affects mature blood cells, and as such is not as aggressive as acute leukemia. The patient may actually live normally for a longer period of time with the disease, which is also the reason why it is usually not diagnosed until the disease is in its more advanced phase.
Then, the leukemia is classified based on which white blood cell is affected:
- Lymphocytic leukemia—affects the lymphoid cells which produce the lymphatic tissues. These tissues are part of the immune system so if the cells producing them are affected, your immune system is compromised.
- Myelogenous leukemia—affects the myeloid cells which are responsible for producing healthy red, white and platelet producing cells.
Diagnoses are made depending on the combination of disease progression and cells affected. Based on this, there are four major types of leukemia, namely:
- Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL)– this type occurs mostly in children and is the most common form of leukemia affecting children. It can also occur in adults.
- Acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) – this type is also common and occurs in both children and adults.
- Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) – This is the most common form of adult leukemia and very rarely affects children.
- Chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) – This type mostly affects adults and the patients may have an extended period where they are functioning normally only to enter a phase where the disease progresses rapidly.
There are different types of therapy that can be used to combat the cancer or to manage it. The doctor will determine the best course of treatment for a patient depending on their state of health, age, and other factors. The most common form of treatments for leukemia include chemotherapy and radiation therapy, biological therapy, targeted therapy, and stem cell therapy.