Leukemia is a type of cancer of bone marrow or blood characterized by an abnormal increase of white blood cells. When you have leukemia, your bone marrow generates a lot of leukemia cells, which are irregular white blood cells. These leukemia cells crowd out regular blood cells, causing cancer and other serious problems like anemia, infections, and bleeding. Leukemia can affect people at any age, although about 90% of leukemia cases are diagnosed in adults. The name comes from the Ancient Greek meaning “white blood”. In the United States, there are almost 50 000 new cases of leukemia diagnosed each year, and about 24 000 deaths a year caused by leukemia.
Signs and symptoms of leukemia vary depending on what type you are diagnosed with. Common symptoms include fever, chills, and night sweats, bone pain or tenderness, headaches, joint pain, swollen lymph nodes in the neck, armpit, or groin, a painful or swollen stomach because of an enlarged spleen, feeling tired or weak, easy bruising, and losing weight. People who have leukemia may also see tiny red spots appear on their skin, and are much more susceptible to suffering from various infections and viruses. The National Cancer Institute has more information about leukemia and the types of symptoms that come with the disease.
There is no one single known cause for leukemia, or any of its specific types. The few known causes are usually caused by factors beyond a person’s control, and account for only a few cases. Leukemia is caused by mutations in DNA, just like all cancer. Some mutations can trigger leukemia. These mutations may happen as an outcome of exposure to carcinogenic substances or radiation, or may happen spontaneously. There are several risk factors, however, that can increase your chances of getting leukemia. If you are exposed to certain chemicals (like benzene) or large amounts of radiation, if you have genetic problems like down syndrome, if you have undergone specific types of chemotherapy to treat another form of cancer, or if you are a chronic smoker. There are four major types of leukemia: acute myelogenous leukemia, acute lymphocytic leukemia, chronic myelogenous leukemia, and chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
Unfortunately, most cases of leukemia cannot be prevented by lifestyle changes or taking medication. Researchers have been able to identify a few risk factors associated with leukemia, however. Smoking is one of these risk factors. Smoking puts you at risk for many types of cancer, such as acute myelogenous leukemia. Exposure to benzene also increases your risk for leukemia (benzene is a chemical product of petroleum and coal).
The type of treatment you need depends on many factors, including the type of leukemia, how far along it is, and your overall health and age. Acute leukemia requires immediate treatment to prevent the rapid advance of leukemia cells.
In most cases, the treatment for acute leukemia makes it go into remission (not completely cured because there is still a chance it may come back). Chronic leukemia is rarely cured, but there is treatment available to help you control the symptoms and the disease. Chemotherapy is the main treatment used for almost all types of leukemia. It uses powerful medicines to eliminate cancer cells. Radiation treatments are also used. It uses high dose X-rays to shrink an enlarged spleen or swollen lymph nodes, and remove cells affected by cancer. Stem cell transplant can also be used. Stem cells boost your immune system and restore your supply of normal blood cells. Often chemotherapy or radiation is used first to make room for the new stem cells by destroying cells in the bone marrow. Other treatment options include biological therapy, which uses special medicines to improve the body’s natural defenses against cancer, and clinical trials.