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Leukemia is cancer that affects the blood-making tissues in the body, such as the lymphatic system and the bone marrow. As a result, the body produces abnormal or immature blood cells. Most types of leukemias affect white blood cells.
Are there different types of leukemia?
Yes. Leukemia can be acute or chronic. Acute leukemia is the more aggressive and fast-acting type. The patient develops a multitude of immature blood cells that quickly multiply and can’t perform their functions. As a result, the patient’s condition quickly worsens.
Chronic leukemia progresses more slowly; some patients may not show any symptoms for years. Chronic leukemia can cause the production of too many blood cells or too few. It also affects more mature blood cells that can function normally for a while.
Leukemia is also categorized by the type of white blood cells it affects. Lymphocytic leukemia affects the lymphocytes, while myelogenous leukemia affects the myeloid cells.
The four most common types of leukemia are chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), acute myelogenous leukemia (AML), and acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL). The last is most common in children, while the other three are seen chiefly in adults.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms will vary somewhat depending on the type of leukemia and its effects on blood cell counts. Some kinds of leukemia, for example, are accompanied by anemia or an abnormally low number of red blood cells. In AML, the affected white blood cells are abnormally large and can cause blockages that result in a rare condition called leukostasis that causes symptoms resembling those seen in a stroke-like slurred speech, confusion, and headache.
Symptoms commonly seen in any type of leukemia include the following:
• Persistent weakness and fatigue
• Unplanned weight loss
• Swollen lymph glands
• Enlarged spleen or liver
• Easy bruising or bleeding
• Recurrent nose bleeds
• Severe or frequent infections
• Tiny red spots on the skin
How is leukemia diagnosed?
The doctor will start by performing a physical exam during which they will take note of the patient’s symptoms. They will also order laboratory tests that will enable them to look for abnormalities in the patient’s blood and bone marrow. During the bone marrow test, the doctor will take a sample of bone marrow from the patient’s hip bone.
How is leukemia treated?
The doctor will choose a treatment based on the type of leukemia, its severity, and whether it has spread to another part of the body. The doctor will also have to consider the patient’s overall health when designing a treatment regimen.
Chemotherapy is the most common treatment for leukemia. The doctor will prescribe a drug or cocktail of drugs that will kill the cancer cells. The doctor may administer the treatment intravenously, or they may have the patient take pills.
In radiation therapy, the patient will lie on a table while a machine aims X-rays or some other type of radiation at the cancer cells to destroy them. The doctor may use radiation therapy on a specific part of the body or the whole body.
Other treatments include biological therapy, targeted therapy, and stem cell transplants.
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