Leukemia: Cause, Symptoms, Types, Diagnosing & Treatments

What Is Leukemia?

Leukemia is a cancer of the blood cells. Generally, leukemia refers to cancers of the WBCs or White Blood Cells.

White blood cells protect human body from bacteria, viruses, fungi, and from abnormal cells and other foreign substances.

  • When in leukemia, the WBCs don’t function like normal WBCs. They can also divide too quickly and eventually crowd out normal cells.
  • WBCs are mostly produced in the bone marrow, but certain types of WBCs are also made in the lymph nodes, spleen, and thymus gland.
  • Once formed, WBCs circulate throughout your body in your blood and lymph, concentrating in the lymph nodes and spleen and cause swelling or pain.
  • Certain types of WBCs grow faster than normal cells, and they don't stop growing when they should.
  • Over time, leukemia cells can crowd out the normal blood cells. This can lead to serious problems such as anemia, bleeding, and infections.

The Types of Leukemia

In general, leukemia is grouped by how fast it gets worse and what kind of white blood cell it affects.

It may be Acute leukemia  or Chronic leukemia .
  • Acute leukemia gets worse very fast and may make feel sick right away.
  • Chronic leukemia gets worse slowly and may not cause symptoms for years.
It may be lymphocytic leukemia  or myelogenous leukemia.
  • Lymphocytic leukemia (lymphoblastic leukemia) affects to lymphocytes.
  • Myelogenous leukemia affects the other type of cells that normally become granulocytes, red blood cells, or platelets.
The four main types of leukemia are:
  • Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) : occurs mostly in children.
  • Acute myelogenous leukemia, (AML) : can occur in children and adults. 
  • Chronic lymphocytic leukemia, (CLL) : Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) is most likely to affect people over the age of 55.
  • Chronic myelogenous leukemia, (CML) : affects mostly adults.
AML and ALL are staged based on how cancer cells look under the microscope and the type of cell involved. 
ALL and CLL are staged based on the WBC count at the time of diagnosis. 
The presence of immature white blood cells, or myeloblasts, in the blood and bone marrow is also used to stage AML and CML

There are less common leukemias, such as hairy cell leukemia.
There are also subtypes of leukemia, such as acute promyelocytic leukemia (a subtype of AML).

What causes leukemia?

The causes of leukemia are not known. However, several factors have been identified which may increase your risk such as 
  • Being exposed to certain chemicals at work, such as benzene.
  • Being exposed to large amounts of radiation
  • Blood disorders, such as myelodysplastic syndrome
  • Family history of leukemia
  • Genetic disorders such as Down syndrome
  • Previous treatment for cancer with chemotherapy or radiation
  • Smoking, which increases your risk of developing AML
Symptoms of leukemia
  • A new lump or swollen gland in your neck, under your arm, or in your groin.
  • Frequent nosebleeds, bleeding from the gums or rectum, more frequent bruising, or very heavy menstrual bleeding.
  • Frequent fevers.
  • Excessive sweating, especially at night called “night sweats”
  • Bone pain and tenderness.
  • Unexplained appetite loss or recent weight loss.
  • Feeling tired a lot without a known reason.
  • Swelling and pain on the left side of the belly.
  • Enlargement of the liver or spleen
  • Red spots on the skin, called petechiae
  • Bleeding and bruising easily
  • Frequent infections

Symptoms may depend on the type of leukemia.

Diagnosing Leukemia

Leukemia may be suspected if someone have above certain risk factors, or concerning symptoms. Leukemia can’t be fully diagnosed by physical exam. Doctors may use blood tests, biopsies, and imaging studies to diagnose you.

A complete blood count determines the numbers of RBCs, WBCs, and platelets in the blood. Looking at your blood under a microscope can also determine if the cells have an abnormal appearance.

Tissue biopsies from the bone marrow or lymph nodes to look for evidence of leukemia. These small samples can identify the type of leukemia and its growth rate.

A number of other tests can be run to assess the progression of the disease, including:

Flow cytometry examines the DNA of the cancer cells and determines their growth rate.
Liver function tests show whether leukemia cells are affecting or invading the liver.
Lumbar puncture is performed by inserting a thin needle between the vertebrae of your lower back. This allows your doctor to collect spinal fluid and determine if cancer has spread to the central nervous system.
Imaging studies, such as X-rays, ultrasounds, and CT scans, help doctors look for any damage to other organs that’s caused by the leukemia.

Treatments for Leukemia

Leukemia is usually treated by a hematologist-oncologist. Treatment for leukemia usually involves one or more of the following:

Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill leukemia cells.
Radiation therapy uses high-energy radiation to damage leukemia cells and inhibit their growth. 
Stem cell transplantation (bone marrow transplant) replaces diseased bone marrow with healthy bone marrow.
Biological or immune therapy uses treatments that help your immune system recognize and attack cancer cells.
Targeted therapy use of special medicines that stop cancer cells from multiplying.For example, imatinib (Gleevec) is a targeted drug that is commonly used against CML.


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