Leukemia is a type of cancer in the blood-forming tissues of the body, which includes the bone marrow and the lymphatic system. There are different types of the disease, some more common in children and others more common in adults. White blood cells, which protect against infections, are usually related to the onset of leukemia. In normal circumstances, these cells develop and divide according to what the body needs. The bone marrow produces of leukemia patients fails to produce proper white blood cells.
Depending on the type of leukemia and medical history, treating leukemia can be complex. However, some effective resources and strategies are available.
Symptoms of leukemia
Symptoms typically depend on the type of leukemia, but the most common ones include: fever or chills, persistent fatigue, weakness, frequent infections, losing weight, swollen lymph nodes, enlarged liver or spleen, easy bleeding or bruising, petechiae, excessive sweating (especially at night), and bone pain or tenderness.
Some of the symptoms are vague and unspecific, which can lead people to ignore them in early stages of the disease, as all of them resemble symptoms of the flu and other common illnesses.
Risk factors for leukemia
Among the numerous factors that can increase the risk of developing leukemia are previous cancer treatments, like chemotherapy and radiation therapy; genetic disorders, for example Down syndrome; or certain blood disorders, as myelodysplastic syndromes. Family history of leukemia is also a factor to check.
People exposed to high levels of radiation, such as survivors of a nuclear reactor accident, or exposed to certain chemicals, like benzene, also have increased risks. Acute myelogenous leukemia is more likely to occur in smokers.
However, it is also important to note that the majority of people with risk factors don’t turn out to be leukemia patients, and many leukemia patients don’t correspond to the above mentioned risk factors.
Chronic leukemia can be found in a routine blood test even before any symptoms occur, thanks to the existence of abnormal levels of white blood cells or platelets. When a person is diagnosed with leukemia, either because of a blood test or symptoms, he or she must undergo certain exams. In a physical examination, a doctor will search for external signs of leukemia, such pale skin from anemia, and swelled lymph nodes, liver, and spleen.
During a bone marrow test, a sample of bone marrow is removed from the patient’s hipbone using a thin needle. In a laboratory, the sample can be checked for the presence of leukemia cells, if there are any, these samples help doctors determine possible treatments.
Treatments for leukemia
Chemotherapy is the main form of treatment for the disease, as it uses chemicals to kill leukemia cells. But other common treatments include biological therapy to help the immune system recognize and attack leukemia cells, and targeted therapy that attacks certain weaknesses of cancerous cells.
In addition, it’s also usual to go through radiation therapy, which can be delivered in an isolated part of the body that has gathered leukemia cells, or it can be applied to the entire body. This therapy can be used as a preparation for a stem cell transplant.
A stem cell transplant replaces sick bone marrow with healthy bone marrow. This procedure, very similar to a bone marrow transplant, consists on receiving an infusion of blood-forming stem cells that help to rebuild bone marrow. The stem cells used can belong to the patients or be donated.