What you need to know about Leukemia

Facts & Stats

Leukemia can be described as a type of malignant cancer that affects the blood cells. Abnormal blood cells get produced in bone marrow of a leukemia patient. Typically leukemia patients experience an aggravated production of anomalous white blood cells. While the normal white blood cells are responsible for combating infections, the abnormal cells associated with leukemia hardly functions in a similar manner. These white blood cells make it difficult for the body to produce normal blood cells. This makes it problematic for the patient’s body to control bleeding, fight diseases and transport oxygen. Common forms of leukemia include acute lymphocytic leukemia, acute myeloid leukemia, chronic lymphocytic leukemia and chronic myeloid leukemia.

Symptoms

Here are the common symptoms of leukemia.

  • Fevers
  • Joint pains
  • Bone pains
  • Night sweats
  • Loss of appetite
  • Frequent contaminations
  • Recurring nosebleeds
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Easy bruising or bleeding
  • Petechiae or red spots on skin
  • Feelings of tiredness and fatigue
  • Swollen lymph nodes which are typically painless
  • Appearance of purplish or bluish patches or small red spots on skin
  • Spleen or liver enlargement that can cause abdominal swelling and pains

In case leukemia cells infiltrated the brain, a patient may experience symptoms like seizures, headaches, vomiting, confusion and progressive loss of overall muscle control.

Stages

There are mainly five stages associated with leukemia:

  • Stage 0: In the first stage there are a lot of additional white blood cells in blood but no additional symptoms.
  • Stage I: The lymph nodes get swollen due to excess production of white blood cells.
  • Stage II: Lymph nodes, liver and spleen gets swollen due to too many white blood cells.
  • Stage III: Anemia occurs as white blood cells affect the red blood cells of the body.
  • Stage IV: Platelet numbers have been reduced in the blood in a major way. Lymph nodes, liver and spleen may appear swollen. There can also be signs of anemia.

Causes

The exact factors responsible for leukemia are not known. However, medical experts suspect that there can be a combination of several environmental and genetic factors. The Leukemia cells are characterized by DNA mutations which makes them grow abnormally. This leads to loss of functions for the white blood cells. The reasons for such mutations are unknown. Chromosome translocation is a process that is common for leukemia patients. A part of a single chromosome separates from the main chromosome and gets attached to another chromosome. Hereditary conditions which can lead to leukemia include Li-Fraumeni syndrome, Down syndrome, ataxia telangiectasia, Noonan syndrome and neurofibromatosis type 1.

Diagnosis

Most of the diagnosis associated with leukemia is carried out through blood work. The doctor may also carry out a physical examination to see if there are any enlargements of spleen or lymph nodes which are commonly associated with leukemia. The blood works will reveal if there are any abnormalities in the blood cell count. The doctor may also recommend bone marrow biopsy under local anesthesia where a sample of bone marrow is collected to see the presence of cancer. Additional imaging tests like X-rays, CT scans and MRI scans can be performed to see if leukemia has affected the central nervous system.

Treatment

Leukemia can be treated in a number of different ways. The type of treatment method to be used will depend on the specific type of leukemia, the age and general health conditions of the patient and whether or not cerebrospinal fluid has been affected by leukemia cells. The main treatment methods for leukemia are chemotherapy, biological therapy, radiation therapy, targeted therapy as well as stem cell transplant. Sometimes a combination of various treatment methods can be used. The doctor may recommend surgical removal of spleen in case it becomes enlarged. While acute leukemia can be treated effectively, the chronic conditions cannot be fully cured.

Prevention

There are no possible ways to prevent leukemia because the exact factors responsible for it are not known. A patient should seek genetic consultation if there is a history of chromosomal conditions in family history that may lead to leukemia. Patients may avoid getting near harmful chemicals like benzene and radiation, although this does not successfully guarantee that leukemia can be prevented.