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What is Leukemia?

Leukemia is a cancer that starts in the organs that make blood, namely the bone marrow (the soft inner part of the bone) and the lymph system. In leukemia, abnormal and immature white blood cells are produced in the bone marrow and lymph system. The immature white blood cells are called leukocytes.

In some individuals, leukocytes are so numerous that the blood actually has a whitish tinge. When abnormal and immature white blood cells are produced, production of normal cells decreases and the ability to fight infection decreases.

The ability to fight infection decreases because the leukemic cells accumulate and lessen the production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells, blood-clotting cells (platelets), and normal leukocytes. If left untreated, the surplus leukemic cells overwhelm the bone marrow, enter the bloodstream, and will eventually invade other parts of the body, such as the lymph nodes, spleen, liver, and the brain, and spinal cord.

Leukemia means "white blood" in Greek. It occurs when there is an excess of abnormal white blood cells in the blood.

There are 4 major kinds of leukemia: acute, chronic, lymphocytic, and myelogenous. Acute leukemias progress very rapidly, and chronic leukemia's progress slowly. The majority of the childhood leukemias are acute leukemias.

Symptoms of Leukemia

There are many symptoms of leukemia and everyone will not experience the same symptoms. Some of the symptoms are: Weakness or chronic fatigue, Fever of unknown origin, Weight loss that is not due to dieting or exercise, Frequent bacterial or viral infections, Headaches, Skin rash, Non-specific bone pain, Easy bruising, Bleeding from gums or nose, Blood in urine or stools, Enlarged lymph nodes and/or spleen, and Abdominal fullness.

Doctors can determine the presence of leukemia through blood tests and examinations of bone marrow.

What Causes Leukemia?

The cause of most leukemias is unknown. However, researchers are working hard to determine the cause. Researchers do know that leukemia occurs in males more often than in females and in white people more often than in black people. However, researchers cannot explain why one person gets leukemia and another does not.

Some scientific studies have shown links between exposure benzene and the development of all types of leukemia. Information about benzene and its link to leukemia.

Types of leukemia

There are several types of leukemia. They are grouped in two ways. One way is by how quickly leukemia develops and gets worse. The other way is by the type of blood cell that is affected.

Leukemia is either acute or chronic, lymphocytic or myelogenous. In acute leukemia, the abnormal blood cells are blasts that remain very immature and cannot carry out their normal functions. The number of blasts increases rapidly, and the disease becomes worse quickly. There are different kinds of acute leukemias:

In chronic leukemia, some blast cells are present, but in general, these cells are more mature and can carry out some of their normal functions. Chronic leukemia refers to a condition where the cells look mature but they are not completely normal. The cells live too long and cause a buildup of certain kinds of white blood cells. Also, the number of blasts increases less rapidly than in acute leukemia. As a result, chronic leukemia worsens gradually.

Lymphocytic and myelogenous (or myeloid) leukemia refer to the two different kinds of cells from which leukemias start. Lymphocytic leukemias develop from lymphocytes in the bone marrow. Myelogenous leukemia (also called myelocytic) develops from either granulocyte white blood cells or monocyte white blood cells.

**Information in table gathered from American Cancer Society

Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL)
* Affects children and adults
* More common among children
* Accounts for slightly more than half of all cases of childhood leukemia
Acute myelogenous leukemia (AML)
(also called Acute nonlymphocytic leukemia: ANLL)
* Affects children and adults
* Accounts for just under half of cases of childhood leukemia
Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)
* Affects adults
* Almost twice as common as CML
Chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML)
* Affects mostly adults: very rare in children
* About half as common as CLL

Can Leukemia be prevented?

Most cancers can be prevented by changes in lifestyle or diet, which will reduce the risk factors. Unfortunately, in leukemias, there are no known risk factors. With no known risk factors, it is difficult to prevent them

Can Leukemia be treated?

Yes. There are two phases of treatment: induction therapy and continuation/maintenance therapy. In induction therapy, the main treatment is to reduce the number of leukemic cells and the main aim is to induce a remission.

Remission is a period of time when the cancer is responding to treatment or is under control. Remission can be partial or complete. When cancer is in complete remission, all the signs and symptoms of the disease disappear. Partial remission is when the cancer shrinks but does not completely disappear. Remissions can last anywhere from several weeks to many years. Complete remissions may continue for years and be considered cures. If the leukemia returns, another remission often can occur with further treatment.

The second phase of leukemia treatment occurs after a patient goes into remission. The aim of this phase is to kill any remaining cells and to extend the remission period as long as possible.

Chemotherapy, radiation therapy and bone marrow transplants are methods of treatments.

Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. Surgery is usually not an option. Surgery is usually not an option because leukemia cells can spread to all the organs via the blood stream and the lymph vessels.

Radiation therapy is the use of x rays or other high-energy rays to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors,

Bone marrow transplantation is a process in which the patient's diseased bone marrow is replaced with healthy marrow.

Effects of Treatment

Leukemia Statistics

  • Leukemia strikes both sexes and all ages.
  • Overall survival rates of leukemia have tripled over the last 30 years.


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