Leukemia is an umbrella term for cancers of the blood. The type of cancer depends on the type of blood cell that results in cancer and whether it grows quickly or slowly. The condition is quite prevalent in adults older than 55. However, it is also the most common cancer in children younger than 15 years.
Types of Leukemia
There are four main types of leukemia:
- Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL): This is the most common type of leukemia in children, teens, and young adults up to age 39.
- Acute myelogenous leukemia (AML): Common among adults over age 65. However, it also occurs in children.
- Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL): Symptoms for this type may not appear for several years. It is most common in adults over age 65.
- Chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML): This type is also more common in adults over age 65 but can also affect adults of any age. Symptoms may delay appearing for several years and it rarely occurs in children.
Symptoms of Leukemia
- Frequent infections
- Shortness of breath
- Pale skin
- Unexplained weight loss
- Joint pain or tenderness
- Swollen lymph nodes in the neck, underarm, groin, or stomach, an enlarged spleen or liver
- Bruising and bleeding easily
- Night sweats
Causes of Leukemia
The exact cause of leukemia is unclear to researchers. However, there are risk factors attributed to this condition:
- Genetic disorders such as Down syndrome
- Other blood cancer disorders
- Repeated exposure to a chemical called benzene often found in cigarette smoke
- Previous therapies for other cancers such as chemotherapy or radiation
Risk Factors for Leukemia
- Chemotherapy or radiation on previous cancer treatment
- Genetic disorders like Down syndrome
- Blood disorders including myelodysplastic syndrome, also known as “preleukemia”
- Exposure to high levels of radiation
- Exposure to some chemicals that may make one susceptible such as benzene
- A family history of leukemia
Leukemia may be suspected if you have worrying symptoms or certain risk factors. A doctor will always begin by evaluating your complete history and performing a physical examination.
However, since leukemia cannot be fully diagnosed by a physical exam, doctors will make a diagnosis using:
- Blood tests
- Imaging tests
Note: A biopsy and aspiration of the bone marrow are often used to confirm a diagnosis.
Tests for leukemia
There exist several tests that doctors can use to diagnose leukemia. RBC, WBC, and platelet count are determined via a complete blood count. Your blood can also be examined under a microscope to see if the cells have an odd appearance.
Staging of Leukemia
Staging reveals the extent of cancer’s spread and progression and aids a doctor in estimating your prognosis.
Based on how cancer cells appear under a microscope and the types of cells involves, AML and ALL are staged. Based on the WBC count at the time of diagnosis, ALL and CLL are staged. AML and CML are staged based on the presence of immature white blood cells, or myeloblasts, in the blood and bone marrow.
Treatment of Leukemia
Treatment for leukemia usually involves one or more of the following:
- Chemotherapy: The treatment uses medication to destroy leukemia cells. Depending on the type of leukemia, you can take a single medication or a mix of several.
- Radiation therapy: The procedure uses high-energy radiation to destroy leukemia cells and stop their growth.
- Stem cell transplantation: With a stem transplant, unhealthy bone marrow is replaced with healthy bone marrow from a donor or your own body (autologous transplantation) or from a donor (called allogeneic transplantation).
- Biological or immune therapy: Treatments used in biological or immunological therapy assist your immune system in identifying and combating cancer cells.
- Targeted therapy: Targeted therapy makes use of drugs that exploit weaknesses in cancer cells.