Leukemia is a type of cancer that starts in the blood forming cells. New blood (red and white) cells are formed in the bone marrow, a soft tissue found in most of the bones. White blood cells are often described as soldiers of our body as they are a part of the immune system and protect the body from various infections. They produce antibodies and destroy the invading bacteria. Leukemia is a condition in which the bone marrow starts producing abnormal white blood cells in large numbers. These cells grow in an uncontrolled manner and do not function properly, as a result of which, serious problems can develop.
In leukemia, although the cancerous cells, initially form in the soft region of the bone (bone marrow), they swiftly multiply and spread into the blood. Thus, through the bloodstream the cells reach different organs and initiate damage.
The symptoms of leukemia will differ depending on its type. Acute leukemia symptoms are apparent within a short period of time. Symptoms that you may notice also depend on where the abnormal white cells accumulate. For instance, if the cancer cells have spread into the brain, then the person may experience symptoms like headache or eyesight problems. Leukemia cells that reach the skin often cause rashes. Joint pain is inevitable when the leukemia cells have made their way into the joints. On the other hand, bone pain indicates that the abnormal cells are very close to the surface of the bone. In general, the common symptoms of this type of cancer are:
- Poor eyesight
- Frequent and recurrent infections
- Swollen lymph nodes of the groin or neck
- Unusual fever
- Loss of weight
- Sweating at night
- Lack of hunger
- Enlargement of the spleen or liver
- Tenderness of bones
- Difficulty in breathing
Children with leukemia often have anemia. They look pale, weak and lose their ability to fight infections. In some patients, unusual skin rashes and sores around the eyes can also be observed. Acute leukemia can also have an adverse effect on the lungs and other body parts.
Skin Discoloration: With dipping platelet count, the blood's ability to clot decreases significantly. This eventually triggers internal bleeding that typically causes development of bluish and black marks below the skin. Thus, patients with leukemia bruise easily, which has often been attributed to low platelet count. Apart from easy bruising, red spots resembling the size of pinhead may also appear under the skin.
Slow Healing: Due to low platelet count, minor injuries take a long time to heal. Thus, leukemia can cause heavy bleeding from minor cuts. Besides, excess bleeding, the cuts are predisposed to infections because of less number of healthy white blood cells.
Fatigue: WBCs require energy to carry out their tasks correctly. However, due to increased production of immature WBCs, the energy requirements of the body dramatically rise, which unfortunately cannot be fulfilled. Hence, the person feels tired all the time, despite eating healthy, energy dense foods.
In chronic leukemia, early signs and symptoms may not be apparent for months. Even if the symptoms appear, they are initially mild and gradually become severe. A routine checkup by a cancer specialist is helpful to determine whether the person has chronic leukemia. In this type of leukemia, the white blood cells slowly spread to different parts of the body. That is why it may take years to develop chronic leukemia. White blood cells collect gradually, affecting the kidneys, digestive tract and central nervous system.
Doctors have not been able to identify the exact causes of leukemia. However, there are certain factors that are known to trigger leukemia. You are likely to develop leukemia as a result of any of the following:
- Exposure to chemicals like benzene
- Over exposure to certain harmful radiations
- History of genetic disorders
Early detection of signs of leukemia can definitely help to diagnose this disease. Blood tests are helpful in finding out whether an individual has leukemia. The level of white blood cells increases tremendously in leukemia and can be detected through blood tests. A bone marrow biopsy provides key information about the type of leukemia. Chest X-rays can also help in the early detection of leukemia. MRI scan, CT scan and ultrasound are some of the diagnostic methods that help to find out damage to organs like brain, liver and kidneys due to leukemia.
There are a number of treatment options. Doctors decide the treatment considering the patient's general health, age, the type of leukemia and most importantly, how far the disease has spread in the body. Here are some of the therapies commonly used to combat leukemia.
Chemotherapy: This form of treatment uses anticancer drugs to destroy the cancer cells. The drugs are either taken orally or injected into the vein.
Radiation Therapy: The patient is exposed to high-energy rays in order to damage the cancer cells and stop their growth.
Biotherapy: In this therapy, the patient is treated with substances that boost the body's natural defense system to fight against cancer cells. This treatment uses antibodies to target the leukemia cells.
Bone Marrow Transplant: This procedure restores normal cells that have been destroyed during radiotherapy or chemotherapy. In bone marrow transplant, the affected bone marrow needs to be replaced.
Individuals diagnosed with leukemia, should ensure that they seek medical advice from doctors who are specialized in treating this disease. Early diagnosis and suitable treatment can definitely control leukemia.