What is leukemia?
Leukemia is a cancer of the blood cells and bone marrow
- Any cancer is caused by an uncontrolled or unregulated growth of abnormal cells. Leukemia involves the uncontrolled growth of the bone marrow cells
- Leukemia cells, unlike other types of cancers, generally do not clump to form a mass (tumor). Due to the absence of tumor (mass) formation, leukemia is not diagnosed through imaging tests such as X-rays.
- Leukemia is most often a cancer of the white blood cells or WBCs. Some leukemia, however, may start in other types of blood cells.
- Leukemia is of many types. Some types of leukemia mostly affect adults while some are more common in children.
- Some leukemias are fast-growing (acute) while others are slow-growing or chronic leukemia.
- Leukemia may also be divided based upon their cells of origin as myeloid or lymphoid leukemia.
Treatment of leukemia varies according to the type of leukemia besides other factors such as the person’s age, stage of leukemia and presence of complications.
What causes leukemia?
Leukemia results when the genetic material (DNA) of a single cell in the bone marrow transforms, this is called a mutation. A mutated cell does not perform body function, but it eats away the nutrition meant for the normal cells. Every single mutated cell acts as the mother cells producing more abnormal cells.
The exact cause of the mutation is not well understood. Certain factors may put a person at risk of leukemia. These include:
- Previous cancer treatment: Previous treatment for cancer with radiation or chemotherapy may increase the risk of leukemia.
- Environmental chemicals: Exposure to certain chemicals such as benzene (used in several industries to make rubber, plastics, dyes, etc.) and formaldehyde (found in building materials and several household products like soaps and shampoos) can put a person at risk of leukemia.
- Cigarette smoking: Present or previous history of smoking increases the risk of several cancers including leukemia.
- Genetic disorders: Certain genetic disorders such as Down syndrome, neurofibromatosis, and Klinefelter syndrome may increase the risk of having leukemia
- Family history of leukemia: In most cases, there is no family history of leukemia, however, if a family member has been diagnosed with leukemia or a genetic disorder, it may increase your risk of leukemia.
What are the early signs and symptoms of leukemia?
The early signs and symptoms of leukemia are usually very subtle and non-specific.
Early symptoms are:
- Fever which keeps coming frequently
- Feeling tired and weak
- Looking pale
Other symptoms are:
- The tendency for bruising and bleeding: The person may complain of frequent nose and gum bleeds. There may be tiny reddish spots on the skin, called petechiae. Purplish patches or bruises may be seen on the skin.
- Pain and tenderness in bones or joints
- Swollen lymph nodes which may be felt in the neck, underarm, groin, or stomach
- An enlarged spleen or liver may be felt as heaviness or pain in the belly.
- Frequent infections.
- Unintended or unplanned weight loss.
- Night sweats.
- Pain or fullness felt under the ribs on the left side.
What are the complications of leukemia?
The complications of leukemia include:
- Frequent infections
- Tumor lysis syndrome (a condition caused by the rapid death of cancer cells during aggressive treatment)
- Organ damage such as liver and kidney failure
- Risk of other cancers
- Children receiving leukemia therapy may experience problems such as central nervous system (CNS) impairment, slowing of growth, infertility, cataract apart from an increased risk for other cancers.