What is leukemia?
Leukemia is the cancer of blood cells. There are many broad categories of blood cells, such as red blood cells (RBCs), white blood cells (WBCs), and platelets. Typically, leukemia refers to cancers of the WBCs.
As mentioned, Leukemia is the cancer of blood-forming cells in the bone marrow which is the soft tissue inside most bones.
It is a condition where there is an overproduction of WBCs that are a part of the immune system of the body, which defends the body against intruding germs and infections.
WBCs (white blood cells) are a vital part of your immune system. WBC protects 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 normally. They can also divide very quickly and eventually crowd out normal cells.
White blood cells 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, White blood cells circulate throughout your body in your blood and lymph (fluid that circulates through the lymphatic system), concentrating in the lymph nodes and spleen.
How does leukemia occur?
Leukemia develops in the immature or still developing cells of the bone marrow, found in the central cavities of bones.
The bone marrow produces all forms of blood cells, includes:
- Red blood cells (RBC) which carry oxygen to the tissues of the body
- White blood cells (WBC) that defend the body against infection
- Platelets that helps in clotting to stop bleeding and accelerate healing
Thus, the bone marrow provides the body each day with a constant supply of fresh, Newly developed healthy cells.
In a patient suffering from leukemia, the white blood cells (WBC) do not mature normally, and instead keep growing in number and interfere with the production of other blood cells.
They are also unable to protect the body against any form of infection the way normal WBCs do.
The types of leukemia
There are 4 main types of leukemia. This type of cancer is classified based on its speed of progression and the type of cells involved.
Depending on how fast it progresses there are 2 types of leukemia:
In this type of blood cancer, the abnormal blood cells are immature and cannot carry out the normal functions of defending the body against the various infections.
They multiply quickly and impede the growth of other blood cells.
There are various types of chronic leukemia, some of which produce too many cells and some too fewer cells.
In this type of blood cancer, more mature blood cells are involved which replicate more slowly and can function normally for a period of time.
Some types of chronic leukemia can go undiagnosed for years as they produce no or negligible symptoms.
Depending on the type of cells involved there are 2 types of leukemia:
This type of blood cancer affects the lymphoid cells that form the lymphatic tissue which makes up your immune system.
This type of blood cancer affects the myeloid cells that give rise to red blood cells (RBC), white blood cells (WBC) and platelet-producing cells.
What are the causes of leukemia?
Although the exact cause of leukemia has still unclear, some factors which put people at a higher risk of leukemia are:
- Maternal-fetal transmission
- Hair dyes
- Artificial ionizing radiation
- Viruses – HTLV-1 (human T-lymphotropic virus)
- HIV (human immunodeficiency virus)
- Some petrochemicals
- Alkylating chemotherapy substance used in previous cancers
What are the symptoms of leukemia?
The symptoms of leukemia are:
Poor blood clotting: Immature white blood cells (WBC) disturb the production of blood platelets, which are crucial for blood clotting. The patient thus heals very much slowly and also bruises and bleeds easily.
Weak immune system: In leukemia since the WBCs do not function normally they are not able to defend the body against infections.
Anemia: Due to the poor production of healthy red blood cells (RBC), the patient may suffer from anemia.
A few other common leukemia symptoms include:
- Fever and chills
- Flu-like symptoms
- Bone pain
- Poor appetite
- Weight loss
- Muscle pains
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Risk factors for leukemia
As mentioned, the causes of leukemia aren’t known. However, various factors have been identified which can increase your risk. Such as:
- A family history of leukemia
- Genetic disorders like Down syndrome
- Blood disorders, like myelodysplastic syndrome, which is sometimes called “preleukemia”
- Previous treatment of cancer with chemotherapy and radiation
- Exposure to high levels of radiation
- Exposure to chemicals such as benzene
Diagnosis of Leukemia
An oncologist can diagnose leukemia after a general blood test. Doctor will first ask about patient’s medical history and perform a physical test to check for swollen lymph nodes.
Doctor can then also suggest a few other tests such as:
To check the complete blood count of white blood cells (WBC), red blood cells (RBC) and platelets.
In Biopsy, samples of tissues are removed from your body to look for the cancer cells. This is the surest and proper way to find the leukemia cells in the bone marrow.
Some additional tests are:
In Cytogenetics the chromosomes of cells are checked from the samples of blood, bone marrow, or lymph nodes to determine the type of leukemia.
To remove cerebrospinal fluid from patient’s lower spine to check for leukemia cells.
To check for swollen lymph nodes or other signs of cancer in the chest.
What are the complications of leukemia?
The common complications of leukemia are:
- Excess bleeding
- Bone and joint pain
- Enlarged spleen
- Continuous infections
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What is the treatment for leukemia?
Medical Treatment for Leukemia
Your oncologist determines the leukemia treatment options based on the severity of your condition, overall health, age, the type of leukemia you have, and to which parts of your body it has spread.
The most common treatments for leukemia are:
Some study shows that exercising can be very beneficial to patients suffering from blood cancer. However, please consult your oncologist for his approval before deciding on an exercise regimen.
Weight training, swimming, jogging and walking are the best forms of exercises for Blood cancer patients.
While training with weights, it is imperative that you go with very light weights, to prevent fatigue and injury.
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