What is Leukemia?
Leukemia is a form of cancer that affects the bone marrow and leads to the proliferation of the leukocytes, which over time lose their basic function of protecting the body from infections. Although it is especially specific for adults aged between 50 and 70 years, leukemia can attack anyone, regardless of age, or gender. Preventable causes are not yet known, which is why doctors are making considerable efforts to find new treatments that will lengthen the life expectancy of leukemia affected patients. Supportive therapies are currently the only chance for these patients to live as long as possible.
- Acute myeloid (or myelogenous) leukemia (AML)
- Is the most common type of leukemia, appearing in both children and adults, but older people are more susceptible than children.
- The average age of occurrence is 65 years
- It affects the monocytes or granulocytes, a certain type of leukocytes
Risk factors are smoking, exposure to benzene, making prior chemotherapy for lymphomas, and the presence of myeloblastic syndromes.
- Acute lymphocytic (or lymphoblastic) leukemia (ALL).
- Is the most common type of leukemia in children – 80% of leukemia in children
- The age at which the disease occurs most frequently is around 4 years
Among the more often incriminated risk factors are high radiation levels or exposure to toxins in the prenatal period or in childhood, and the Down syndrome.
- Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL).
- A common form of leukemia
- It occurs more frequently in men than in women
- Patients may feel well for years, without treatment
- It is generally discovered by chance
- Very rarely affects children
Among the risk factors are the advanced age (over 75% of the cases occur in people aged over 60 years), smoking, long exposure to herbicides and pesticides.
CLL also has a hereditary character
- Chronic myeloid (or myelogenous) leukemia (CML).
- Is not a common form of leukemia
- It generally affects adults but almost 3% of all cases are in children
- The average age of the CML occurrence is at 67 years.
- Although it is not hereditary transmitted, CML has a genetic component – in 90% of all the cases it is associated with a chromosomal abnormality called the Philadelphia chromosome in which an abnormal gene causes the production of an enzyme (tyrosine kinase) which is supposed to be the cause of uncontrolled growth and leukemic cell development.
Among the risk factors involved in CML are smoking and exposure to high levels of radiation.
The incipient phase is accidentally discovered and it usually progresses slowly or accelerated.
Three phases of evolution of the CML are distinguished:
- A chronic phase, with hyperproduction of granulocytes, symptoms of mild intensity and good response to the treatment
- An accelerated phase with more intense symptoms and a relatively good response to treatment
- An acute phase or Blast crisis where leukemic cells invade the other organs.
In the case of leukemia, there are no obvious symptoms, because the disease has a multitude of forms. Most of the time, the symptoms are vague, attributed to a cold, a weakened immune system or to the stress.
There are some common signs in all types of leukemia, to which you should pay special attention. If you notice that they are manifest in the long run, go to the doctor for detailed blood tests.
Paleness – due to the bone marrow damage, the red blood cells can not be produced, and white cells develop uncontrollably. This process leads to anemia, which has the pale skin as its main symptom. Cold hands and feet are also signs of anemia.
Fatigue – is a common symptom of many diseases, including leukemia. If you feel tired all the time, without any obvious reason, for a long period of time, it could be the fault of the anemia caused by the body’s inability to produce the healthy cells.
Fever and frequent infections – red blood cells are the primary protectors of the immune system. If they are not many enough, as is the case with leukemia, the body will be weaker and prone to any small infection. For this reason, the trivial coldness of such symptoms is not to be treated with superficiality, especially if it is repeated at short intervals or lasts longer than normal.
Narrow breath – in addition to the lack of energy and fatigue, breathing difficulties are another symptom that you should not ignore. If you frequently notice that you are out of breath after a minimal effort, go to the doctor for a thorough blood test set.
Slowly healing of injuries – cuts or scratches heal slowly in leukemia patients.
Other symptoms of leukemia can be night sweats, chills, painful joints, weight loss, nasal bleeding, and enlarged lymph nodes.
The treatment for leukemia depends on the type of leukemia and on the individual characteristics of the patient, including the age and the health.
Often, the acute leukemia is treated immediately, while the chronic leukemia is monitored and treated only when blood tests indicate a progression of the disease or the symptoms become evident.
The main method of treatment is chemotherapy. Chemotherapy drugs can be taken as pills, intravenous injections, or direct injections into the spinal fluid. The treatment is given in cycles, a treatment period being followed by a break, which is followed by another round of chemotherapy, and so on.
Young people with good health are often subject to intensive chemotherapy used for treatment in leukemia cases.
Also, radiotherapy treatment is used. High energy radiation is usually directed towards the tumor cell clusters, although occasionally the whole body is irradiated. Radiation therapy is used once or twice a day before the stem cell transplantation to remove as many malignant cells as possible.
Bone marrow transplantation is a potential healing remedy. Prior to the procedure, chemotherapy and radiation therapy are given to kill both cancer cells and normal bone marrow cells. The stem cells to be transplanted into the patient are taken from the bone marrow of a donor whose stem cells match that of the patient.
Currently, leukemia is treated and can be cured using state-of-the-art technologies and new discoveries. Diagnosis of ‘blood cancer‘ is no longer a death sentence. Early diagnosis, which relies heavily on symptom awareness, greatly improves the success rate of the treatment.