Leukemia

What is leukemia?

Leukemia is a type of cancer that forms in the tissues that form blood, including bone marrow and lymphatic tissues.

Leukemia affects white blood cells, which help fight infection when functioning properly. Leukemia leads to production of abnormal white blood cells, which eventually outnumber the amount of healthy cells. This affects the blood's ability to do its jobs - delivering oxygen throughout the body, controlling bleeding and fighting infection.

What are the different types of leukemia?

Leukemia is typically classified as either acute or chronic. Chronic leukemia develops slowly, while acute leukemia develops very quickly. A patient with acute leukemia may start to show symptoms before being diagnosed, while the first sign of chronic leukemia is usually an abnormal blood test.

Leukemia is also classified by the type of cells in which the cancer started. Myeloid leukemia develops in the myeloid cells; lymphoid leukemia begins in the lymphoid cells.

The four most common types of leukemia are:

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

What are the symptoms of leukemia?

The symptoms of leukemia vary depending on the type of leukemia and on the patient. Symptoms are commonly overlooked, as they are often vague and may depict other minor illnesses. Common symptoms may include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Fatigue or feeling of weakness
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Tender abdomen, as a result of a swollen liver or spleen
  • Weight loss
  • Bruising/bleeding easily
  • Painful bones or joints

If symptoms indicate that leukemia may be a potential diagnosis, a doctor will perform a series of tests that may include a physical exam, blood test or biopsy. Further testing may be necessary to confirm a diagnosis.

What are the causes and risk factors of leukemia?

Leukemia forms when a genetic mutation is found in the DNA of blood cells. The exact cause of the mutation remains unknown at this time, although it is believed to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Risk factors may include:

  • Family history of leukemia
  • Treatment for past cancer
  • Genetic abnormalities
  • Blood disorders
  • Radiation exposure
  • Chemical exposure
  • Smoking

How is leukemia treated?

Treatment for leukemia varies depending on the type and stage of leukemia, as well as the patient's age and overall health.

Recommended care plans may include various therapies, including chemotherapy and radiation therapy, and/or a stem cell transplant.