Understanding and Treating Leukemia

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Leukemia is a cancer affecting blood and bone marrow.  Leukemia begins in the cells of the bone marrow and usually involves the white blood cells.  Your white blood cells fight infection which grows and divide normally. When a person has leukemia, the bone marrow produces an abnormal amount of white blood cells. Unlike other cancers, leukemia does not produce tumors visible in imaging tests. Leukemia can affect people of all ages. 

We can classify leukemia in several ways. 

By progression of the disease

  • Acute Leukemia which is aggressive and needs timely treatment.
  • Chronic Leukemia produces no early symptoms and can go undiagnosed for years.

By the type of white blood cells affected

  •   Lymphocytic leukemia affects lymphoid cells. 
  • ·Myelogenous leukemia affects myelogenous cells. 

Main types of leukemia are

  • Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) is the most common type of leukemia in children though adults can get it
  •  Acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) is the most common type of leukemia. Both adults and children can get AML. 
  •  Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) is a common chronic leukemia. 
  • Chronic mylegeneos leukemia (CML)

Symptoms and Causes

Scientists believe a combination of genetic and environmental factors cause leukemia. It is believed to occur when some blood cell’s genetic structure mutates. Some abnormalities cause the cell to grow and divide more rapidly and live longer than normal cells. These abnormal cells overpower normal cells in the bone marrow, leading to fewer healthy white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. 

Some people are at higher risk of developing leukemia. 

  • Family history of leukemia
  •  Smoking
  •  Genetic disorders such as down syndrome
  •  Certain blood disorders 
  • Previous cancer treatment with chemotherapy and radiation
  • ·    Exposure to certain chemicals

Symptoms of leukemia can vary depending on the type. Common signs of leukemia are

  • Excessive sweating 
  • Fatigue and weakness
  •  Unintentional weight loss
  • Bone pain and tenderness
  • Painless swollen lymph nodes
  • Enlarged liver and spleen
  •  Red spots on the skin (petechiae)
  •  Bleeding or bruising
  • Frequent infections
  •  Fever or chills

Leukemia can also cause symptoms in the organ affected by the cancerous cells. 

Diagnosis and treatment

Your doctor will begin with a complete physical and will take a comprehensive look at your medical history. During the physical, they will look for the physical signs of the disease. Some of these signs are swollen lymph nodes, enlarged liver or spleen and petechiae.

The doctor will order a complete blood count test. Leukemia usually shows higher than normal white blood cells. Sometimes leukemia cells may be found.  Further blood tests may be ordered for a more in-depth diagnosis. 

The doctor may conduct a bone marrow biopsy to get samples from your bone marrow. 

Other tests may include imaging tests and lumbar puncture. 

The treatment for leukemia depends on the type of leukemia, your age, your physical health, the spread of the disease. Common treatments of the disease include

  • ·Chemotherapy is chemicals administered either in pill form or intravenously. The chemical kills the leukemia cells or prevents them from dividing. The drugs are usually administered in cycles. The duration of chemotherapy can vary. 
  • Radiation therapy uses strong beams to kill leukemia cells. Radiation is directed to precise points on your body. 
  • Immunotherapy (Biological therapy) uses drugs to boost your immune system to fight the disease. 
  •  Targeted therapy uses drugs to target specific vulnerabilities in the cancer cells. The therapy prevents the leukemia cells from multiplying and dividing. The drugs are used to cut off the blood supply to cancerous cells or kill them.         Hematopoietic cell transplantation  (stem cell or bone marrow transport) during the procedure the blood-forming cells are killed with chemotherapy and radiation. These cells replaced with new healthy hematopoietic cells.

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