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Article Written by Maria Gonzalez — Medically reviewed by Rohini Prasannan and Cosimo Simeone

Introduction:

Leukemia is a type of cancer that affects our blood. It’s a serious condition that can have a significant impact on a person’s health and well-being. This illness occurs when the bone marrow, which is the soft tissue in our bones responsible for producing blood cells, allows immature blood cells to grow out of control.

Leukemia results in a reduction of healthy blood cells and a heightened susceptibility to infections and cancer. Immediate medical attention should be sought if you or a loved one has been diagnosed with this condition. Proper treatment and care can effectively alleviate symptoms and enhance quality of life.

Leukemia affects both adults and children and while it’s the 10th most common cancer in the world, with 640,000 cases and 11.66 million deaths in 2019. It can make the diagnosis more unsettling when it happens to you or someone close to you. It can be tough to deal with, but the good news is you’re not alone (1).

So, in this article, we cover everything you need to know about leukemia, from causes to types and support options, to help you better understand this disease from all angles. We want you to know that we’re here to help you every step of the way.

Where does leukemia form?

Leukemia is a type of cancer that affects the white blood cells in our body. White blood cells are important because they help our immune system fight off bacteria, viruses, and other harmful cells.

The bone marrow is the usual site for producing white blood cells. The lymph nodes also produce them. These small filters contain a special fluid that carries white blood cells to different parts of the body, keeping us healthy!

In the places where white blood cells are made, there are special cells called stem cells. These stem cells have the ability to turn into different types of cells in our body, including white blood cells. When they become white blood cells, they are still immature and not fully developed. But they go through a process of maturing and growing to become fully functional.

Once they are ready, these white blood cells travel through our bloodstream and a network called the lymphatic system. Their job is to protect our bodies from infections. They fight against harmful bacteria, viruses, and other things that can make us sick.

In leukemia, something goes wrong with the normal process of cells growing up and becoming fully functional. The cells that should become mature white blood cells end up becoming abnormal and cancerous. These rare cells are called leukemia cells.

Instead of growing up and doing their job properly, these leukemia cells start to accumulate in the bone marrow. From there, they begin to move around the body at different levels of maturity. This disrupts the production of healthy white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. Have a look here!

What are the common cause of leukemia?

We don’t have one specific reason that causes leukemia. There are several factors that could increase the chances of developing it. These factors can be genetic or related to the environment. Some of these factors include:

  • Being exposed to radiation can damage the DNA in our cells. Consequently creating a space for mutations that may lead to leukemia.
  • Having undergone chemotherapy in the past can increase the chances of developing leukemia in adults.
  • Certain viral infections, such as Epstein Barr (mononucleosis) or human T-cell virus. 
  • If someone in your family has had any blood-related diseases, it can raise your risk of getting leukemia.
  • Genetic syndromes, such as Down syndrome or Bloom syndrome. (2)

How do you classify Leukemia? 

Leukemia can be divided into two categories, based on how it progresses and which type of cells are involved. This allows doctors to make the correct diagnosis and find the best treatment.

The first one depends on how fast the leukemia advances. The two main types are acute leukemia and chronic leukemia. Acute leukemia is a fast-growing version of leukemia. It accumulates excessive immature white blood cells and worsens very quickly.

In contrast, chronic leukemia is slower, their cells look more mature but get worse over time. For this reason the chronic leukemia could be not detectable. It could take months or years before the disease shows his first signs. 

The second classification is based on the specific white blood cell that is affected. White blood cells have different roles. They can become lymphoid cells that filter and form the immune system or myeloid cells that make red blood cells, more white blood cells, and platelets. Leukemia is divided into two types: Myeloid and Lymphocytic. Each type has a different stage related to how the disease is progressing. 

Putting it all together, there have 4 common types: 
  • Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL): is a highly uncommon type of cancer. If left untreated, it can progress rapidly within a few months. It is very common in children. However, it is more fatal in adults. Adults account for 40% of all cases, but they make up over 80% of deaths.
  • Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML): is usually diagnosed in older individuals. This is because it is characterized by the presence of immature myeloid cells and is often associated with a genetic factor.
  • Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL): also known as “silent leukemia,” typically progresses without any noticeable symptoms during its initial years. This allows the leukemia cells to accumulate and spread throughout the body, making it particularly challenging to detect.
  • Chronic Myeloid Leukemia (CML): This type of Leukemia is typically caused by a genetic change in the gene BCR-ABL. This change transforms healthy cells into CML cells. Due to its slow development, could be difficult as CLL to detect it in the early stages. (3)

What are the early signs of having leukemia?

Leukemia symptoms will be different between types. Furthermore some forms of the disease can have more complications based on age or how soon the disease is treated. For example, acute leukemia can cause symptoms including: 

  • Feeling constantly tired or cold 
  • Constant infections or having a hard time recovering from them 
  • Bruises or tiny red dots on the skin 
  • Abdominal bloating or sensation of being full  
  • Joint pain 
  • Weight loss due to having less appetite 

In chronic leukemia, symptoms develop slowly and may not show up until later. The main sign is having too many white or red blood cells, which can be detected through blood tests. If you want to have some advices on how to manage the joint pain, you can book an appointment here and you can see your trusted GP too. 

Diagnosis: 

  • Blood Tests: By taking blood and sending it to the lab, they will do a complete blood count (CBC) to determine the number of platelets and white and red blood cells in the patient.
  • Bone Marrow Tests: In this procedure, a small sample of bone marrow is taken from the bone in your hips or any other large bones, which will be sent to the laboratory to look for any leukemia cells or any abnormal cell shapes.
  • Imagine Tests: X-rays, CT scans, or MRIs can be used to find any sign of leukemia, such as organs looking bigger than usual or swollen lymph nodes. 
  • Genetic Tests: If you have a family history of blood diseases, your risk of developing leukemia increases. To determine if there are any specific mutations or changes in the genes or chromosomes of leukemia cells, doctors can use a genetic test. This test helps doctors identify the most effective treatment for you.

It’s important to know that these tests are used to detect leukemia in the body. However, more specific tests may be used based on factors like the person’s age and the suspected type of leukemia (4)

Treatments: 

Is leukemia curable? Although there is no cure for leukemia, doctors employ various treatments to prevent its recurrence. These treatments vary depending on the patient’s age and the type of leukemia. They may use one or a combination of approaches. 

  • “Watch and Wait”: Some patients with the chronic type of leukemia don’t need treatment straight away; nevertheless, they will be closely monitored and will be intervened if needed. This is only offered when doctors truly believe there will not be any benefits from starting treatment straight away. 
  • Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells or stop them from growing. It’s usually given in cycles to allow the patient to rest between doses. The intensity and breaks can change depending on the type of leukemia and how much it has spread.
  • Targeted Therapy: This method involves using drugs or other substances that can pinpoint and combat particular types of cancer cells with less harm to healthy cells. Its usually combined with the common chemotherapy. 
  • Stem Cell Transplant: During this procedure, the patient receives high doses of chemotherapy to get rid of the bad cells in their bone marrow or lymph nodes. After that, they get new blood stem cells, so they can make healthy blood cells and replace the damaged ones. It’s not an easy treatment, but it can work well for certain types of cancer (4).

How many years can you live with leukemia?

The lifespan of someone with leukemia can vary depending on several factors, such as the specific type of leukemia, the stage at which it is diagnosed, age and the individual’s overall health. In general, leukemia is a serious condition that requires prompt medical attention and appropriate treatment. With advancements in medical technology and improved treatment options, the survival rates for leukemia have improved significantly over the years.

Some types of leukemia, especially the more aggressive forms, can progress rapidly if left untreated. However, with early diagnosis and appropriate treatment, many people with leukemia can achieve remission or manage the disease effectively, leading to a longer lifespan.

It’s important to note that each case is unique, and there is no definitive answer regarding how many years a person can live with leukemia. Some individuals may experience long-term remission and live for many years, while others may have a more challenging journey. The prognosis can vary widely, and it’s best to consult with medical professionals who can provide personalized information based on individual circumstances.

The key takeaway is that with timely diagnosis, proper treatment, and ongoing medical care, many people with leukemia can lead fulfilling lives and enjoy meaningful time with their loved ones. It is important to stay informed, work closely with healthcare providers, and maintain a positive outlook while managing the disease.

Conclusions:

In conclusion, leukemia is a type of cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow. It happens when something goes wrong with the cells that make our blood, causing them to become abnormal and cancerous. People with leukemia feel tired, get infections easily, have bruises or red dots on their skin, and experience other symptoms.

There are different types of leukemia, like acute and chronic, which describe how fast the cancer grows. leukemia can also be categorized based on the kind of blood cells it affects. Some types of leukemia are more common in adults, while others are more common in children.

Doctors use tests like blood tests, bone marrow tests, and imaging tests to find out if someone has leukemia. Treatment for leukemia can include things like medicines, chemotherapy (strong medicines that kill cancer cells), and sometimes a stem cell transplant (replacing the damaged cells with healthy ones).

It’s important to know that leukemia is a serious disease, but doctors and scientists are working hard to find better ways to treat it. With the right treatment and support, many people with leukemia can get better and live healthy lives. Also very important is the prevention and taking care of your health with regular check ups with your doctor. Health is a serious matter!

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