When many people hear “leukemia” they may automatically think of it as a disease only children get. This is not the case because leukemia is cancer of the blood cells which are made in the bone marrow and everyone has bone marrow. Blood cells include the white blood cells that fight infection, red blood cells that carry oxygen throughout the body, and platelets which help clot the blood. For somebody that has leukemia, the bone marrow starts to make abnormal white blood cells which will grow faster than they should and do not work the way they should. These abnormal white blood cells can cause anemia, bleeding, and infections by crowding out the healthy blood cells. Leukemia can arise in one of four different forms. Adults tend to get the two chronic types of leukemia and children get the acute types of leukemia.
Lymphocytic leukemia affects the white blood cells called lymphocytes, this leukemia can be acute (meaning you will feel sick very fast and it progresses quickly) or chronic (meaning it progresses slowly). Myelogenous leukemia affects the white blood cells called myelocytes which can also be either acute or chronic.
The cause of leukemia is unknown and there have been some risk factors associated with leukemia, but they also are not a for sure thing. The risk factors include being exposed to large amounts of radiation, smoking, receiving chemotherapy for a different kind of cancer, or if you have a genetic problem such as Down syndrome. These are not guaranteed reasons because many people that have leukemia did not have these risk factors and people with these risk factors may never get leukemia.
Symptoms of leukemia for those patients with the acute types of leukemia will be felt early on and those with chronic leukemia may not be noticed for years. The symptoms can vary between the different types of leukemia, but general symptoms include bone or joint pain, headaches, fatigue, losing weight, and bruising or bleeding easily. It is important to see your doctor if you are experiencing these symptoms because only your doctor can diagnose leukemia by doing a physical exam. Your doctor will also check your lymph nodes during your exam because leukemia can spread to lymph nodes or other organs. Aside from doing a physical exam, your doctor can check your white blood cells with a blood test and if it is not a normal count your doctor may want to do a bone marrow biopsy.
Treatments will depend on what type of leukemia you are diagnosed with, but the most common treatment for leukemia is chemotherapy. This seems ironic since one of the risk factors for leukemia includes having received chemotherapy in the past for a different kind of cancer. Nevertheless, chemotherapy uses strong chemicals to kill the cancer cells. Radiation is another treatment that destroys cancer cells with high doses of X-rays, which ironically again is a risk factor for getting leukemia. After these treatments, healthy bone marrow may replace your existing bone marrow by means of a bone marrow transplant. Another way of boosting your immune system and to start a new supply of normal blood cells would be undergoing a stem cell transplant. For some people an option for leukemia treatment is enrolling in a clinical study that may use a new combination of treatments or may be working on a new treatment all together. This may not be for everyone since there may be some risk involved. Unfortunately there is no way to prevent leukemia since there is no known cause. If you notice any of these symptoms you should seek medical advice as soon as possible.