Leukemia: The Basics
Leukemia is a cancer of the blood or blood cells. They are classified by two factors:
- How quickly the leukemia develops, called either acute (developing quickly) or chronic (developing more slowly).
- What type of white blood cells are affected (either lymphoid or myeloid).
The types of leukemia include:
- Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML).
- Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL).
- Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML).
- Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL).
Several things have been identified as risk factors:
- Exposure to high-energy radiation.
- Genetic Syndromes, such as Down syndrome.
- Exposure to the chemical benzene (through work exposure or smoking).
- Prior treatment with certain chemotherapies.
- History of blood disorders such as MDS.
Currently there are no screening tests for leukemia.
Signs & Symptoms of Leukemia
When leukemia develops, your white blood cells are unable to perform their primary job of fighting infections. Therefore, a symptom of leukemia is fever and infection that doesn’t go away with treatment. If the number of immature white blood cells (called blasts) is very high, the number of red blood cells (anemia) and platelets (thrombocytopenia) in your body can be low because there is no space for them. This can lead to feeling tired, appearing pale, and bruising easily.
Other common symptoms include:
- Swollen or tender lymph nodes, liver, and/or spleen.
- Night sweats.
- Weight loss.
- Bone or joint pain.
In acute leukemia, the blasts can build up in the brain or spinal cord which can lead to:
Diagnosis of Leukemia
Your provider will ask you about your medical history and perform a complete physical exam. A blood test called a complete blood count will be done to see if there are blasts in your blood. To determine the type of leukemia, a sample of bone marrow needs to be taken through a procedure called a bone marrow biopsy.
There are a number of different therapies used to treat leukemia. Your treatment plan will be determined by the type of leukemia you have. In general the therapies used to treat leukemia include:
- Targeted Therapies
- Monoclonal Antibodies.
- Stem cell or bone marrow transplant.
- Supportive Care.
The goal of any of these treatments is to kill all of the cancer cells and to put the patient into remission.
This article is a basic guide to leukemia. You can learn more about your type of leukemia and treatment by using the links below.