It is in the bone marrow, which is the spongy, soft matter in the center of the bones, that these blood cells are formed. New or immature blood cells are known as blasts. While some of these remain in the marrow in order to mature, others travel and mature in other areas of the body. In the normal course of things, the production of blood cells occur in a controlled and orderly way, according to the requirements of the body. However, when leukemia strikes, large amounts of abnormal blood cells are produced. These abnormal cells are generally white blood cells, in most types of leukemia. Apart from not functioning properly, leukemia cells also look different as compared to normal blood cells. Practically all patients affected by leukemia develop anemia, a deficiency of red blood cells. Also, because the white blood cells are impaired, it affects the ability of the body to fight infections. Besides, a shortage of thrombocytes, or platelets, causes easy bleeding and bruising.
Types of Leukemia
- Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL): This occurs most often in those aged over 55 years, and almost never in children.
- Chronic Myeloid Leukemia (CML): This type occurs mainly in adults.
- Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL): This is most commonly seen in children, and sometimes in adults.
- Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML): Both adults and children can get this disorder.
- Hairy Cell Leukemia (HCL): This is a very rare type of leukemia, which grows slowly in the blood.
Lymphocytic and Myeloid refer to the type of cancer cells involved. Leukemia is characterized by the accumulation of these cells in the blood, albeit the treatment and history of each differ. Acute leukemia indicates that the disease progresses rapidly, and if not treated, the life expectancy can be from just a few weeks to perhaps a few months only. Chronic leukemia, on the other hand, is the type that progresses slowly, allowing more numbers of functional, mature cells to be produced. After the onset of this type of blood cancer, life expectancy can be as high as 20 years, or even more.
- The exact reasons for the cause(s) of leukemia are not known but, it is suspected that large doses of irradiation and long-term exposure to benzene can be the reason that triggers this off.
- Hereditary factors also might increase chances of getting leukemia.
- Smoking cigarettes can increase the risk of AML.
- Blood disorders also play a prominent role in an individual getting leukemia.
- Easy bleeding or bruising, due to the deficiency of platelets.
- Fatigue and paleness, due to anemia.
- Recurrence of minor infections or inadequate healing of minor wounds or cuts, due to inadequate white blood cells.
- Nosebleeds or other types of hemorrhages, and weight loss, is common. These symptoms can occur suddenly in children.
- People with chronic leukemia might not exhibit these symptoms and may get diagnosed during a regular medical check up.
These symptoms can be caused by other conditions too, apart from leukemia. However, they do need to be evaluated medically when they occur. Since the symptoms resemble those that occur in other conditions too, which are often less serious, it can often be difficult to diagnose leukemia early. When leukemia is suspected, the cells in the marrow or the blood need to be examined, which is done by means of a biopsy of the bone marrow and blood tests.
- One of the most effective treatment for leukemia is chemotherapy.
- Anti-cancer medication is also available, which is either used by itself or in combination.
- Along with this, there are other treatments like antibiotics, and transfusion of components blood can also be carried out.
- Bone marrow transplant and stem cell transplant is a treatment for certain types of leukemia.
- Biological treatment, which means treating the immune system, so that it recognizes and kills the cancer cells, is also an option.
- Radiation therapy, which uses X-rays or other high-energy beams, help in damaging the cancer cells, thus arresting their growth.
- Targeted treatment, which is using certain drugs, targeting susceptible cancer cells and stopping their growth and multiplication, can be resorted to.
- Around 275,000 people have been estimated to be living with, or in remission from leukemia, in the US.
- It is the tenth-most frequently occurring type of cancer in all races and ethnic groups.
- Around 30% more men are living with leukemia than women.
- Incidences of AML is lower in children and adolescents below the age of 14 years, than it is with individuals aged 14 and above.
- The most common types of leukemia in adults are AML and CML, whereas in children it is ALL.
- The incidence of leukemia is highest among whites, and lowest among American Indians, and the Asian and Pacific Islander population.
- From 1997 to 2006, incidence rates for leukemia have greatly dropped in the white, Asian and Pacific Islander population.
- Hispanic children of all races under the age of 20 years have the highest rate of leukemia.
- Chances of survival vary according to a person's age at diagnosis, gender, race, and type of leukemia.
- Around 1 in 3 deaths due to cancer among children under 15 is due to leukemia, which is the most common type of cancer in this age group.
- In the United States, 1 person is diagnosed with a type of blood cancer every 4 minutes, and someone dies from this condition every 10 minutes.
- The overall five-year relative survival rate for leukemia has nearly quadrupled in the past half a century.
- In the early sixties, the five-year relative survival rate among whites with leukemia was 14 percent.
- In the mid-seventies, the five-year relative survival rate worldwide was 35 percent, and from 1999 to 2005, went up to 54 percent.
- From 1999 to 2005, the approximate five-year relative survival rates overall were:
CML - 53 percent
CLL - 79 percent
AML - 23 percent overall and 60 percent for children younger than 15 years
ALL - 66 percent overall and 91 percent for children younger than 5 years.
If detected in its early stage, the prognosis and chances of survival of cancer are definitely better, and there is a greater chance of the cancer going into remission. The importance of a timely diagnosis and treatment cannot be stressed enough. Medical assistance must be sought immediately if an individual exhibits symptoms that may be indicative of cancer.