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Leukemia is a cancer of the blood cells. There are several broad categories of blood cells, including red blood cells (RBCs), white blood cells (WBCs), and platelets. Generally, leukemia refers to cancers of the WBCs.
WBCs are a vital part of your immune system. They protect your body from invasion by bacteria, viruses, and fungi, as well as from abnormal cells and other foreign substances. In leukemia, the WBCs don’t function like normal WBCs. They can also divide too quickly and eventually crowd out normal cells.
WBCs are mostly produced in the bone marrow, but certain types of WBCs are also made in the lymph nodes, spleen, and thymus gland. Once formed, WBCs circulate throughout your body in your blood and lymph, concentrating in the lymph nodes and spleen.
The onset of leukemia can be acute (sudden onset) or chronic (slow onset). In acute leukemia, cancer cells multiply quickly. In chronic leukemia, the disease progresses slowly and early symptoms may be very mild.
Leukemia is also classified according to the type of cell. Leukemia involving myeloid cells is called myelogenous leukemia. Myeloid cells are immature blood cells that would normally become granulocytes or monocytes. Leukemia involving lymphocytes is called lymphocytic leukemia. There are four main types of leukemia:
Acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) can occur in children and adults. According to National Cancer Institute (NCI), about 21,000 new cases of AML are diagnosed annually in the United States. This is the most common form of leukemia.
Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) occurs mostly in children. About 6,000 new cases of ALL are diagnosed annually.
Chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) affects mostly adults. About 7,000 new cases of CML are diagnosed annually.
Hairy cell leukemia is a very rare subtype of CLL. Its name comes from the appearance of the cancerous lymphocytes under a microscope.
The causes of leukemia are not known. However, several factors have been identified which may increase your risk. These include:
The symptoms of leukemia include:
Leukemia can also cause symptoms in organs that have been infiltrated or affected by the cancer cells. For example, if the cancer spreads to the central nervous system, it can cause headaches, nausea and vomiting, confusion, loss of muscle control, and seizures.
Leukemia can also spread to other parts of your body, including:
Leukemia may be suspected if you have certain risk factors, or concerning symptoms. Your doctor will begin with a complete history and physical examination, but leukemia can’t be fully diagnosed by physical exam. Instead, doctors will use blood tests, biopsies, and imaging studies to diagnose you.
There are a number of different tests that can be used to diagnose leukemia. A complete blood count determines the numbers of RBCs, WBCs, and platelets in the blood. Looking at your blood under a microscope can also determine if the cells have an abnormal appearance.
Tissue biopsies can be taken from the bone marrow or lymph nodes to look for evidence of leukemia. These small samples can identify the type of leukemia and its growth rate. Biopsies of other organs such as the liver and spleen can show if the cancer has spread.
Once leukemia is diagnosed, it will be staged. Staging helps your doctor determine your prognosis. AML and ALL are staged based on how cancer cells look under the microscope and the type of cell involved. ALL and CLL are staged based on the WBC count at the time of diagnosis. The presence of immature white blood cells, or myeloblasts, in the blood and bone marrow is also used to stage AML and CML.
A number of other tests can be run to assess the progression of the disease, including:
Leukemia is usually treated by a hematologist-oncologist. These are doctors who specialize in blood disorders and cancer. The treatment depends on the type and stage of the cancer. Some forms of leukemia grow slowly and don’t need immediate treatment. However, treatment for leukemia usually involves one or more of the following:
The long-term outlook and prognosis for people who have leukemia depends on the type of the cancer they have and their stage at diagnosis. The sooner leukemia is diagnosed and the faster it’s treated, the better the chance of recovery. Some factors, like older age, past history of blood disorders, and chromosome mutations, can negatively affect your prognosis.
According to the NCI, the overall mortality rate for leukemia has been falling about 1 percent each year for the past decade. From 2005 to 2011, the five-year survival rate for leukemia patients was 58.5 percent. However, it’s important to note that this figure includes people of all ages and with all forms of leukemia. It’s not predictive of the outcome for any one person. Work with your medical team to treat leukemia, and remember that each person’s situation is different.
Written by: Verneda Lights, Lauren Reed-Guy, and Elizabeth Boskey, PhD
Published on: Oct 16, 2015on: Aug 25, 2017
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