Cancer is a frightening disease. It can strike in many different areas of the body, and it can appear at any age. And it’s very, very common.
One particularly common kind of cancer is leukemia. While leukemia is often associated with children – in fact, it’s the most common form of childhood cancer – it can actually affect people of any age. Approximately 90 percent of all leukemia cases occur in adults.
It’s estimated there are currently 381,774 people living with or in remission from leukemia in the United States. If that number seems small, it’s important to remember that nearly 60,500 more people are expected to be diagnosed with leukemia each year.
To protect your health, you need to know what leukemia is and what it looks like. Here are the fast facts on leukemia: what it is, how it’s treated, and the outlook for those who’ve been diagnosed with it.
What is Leukemia?
Leukemia is a type of cancer that originates in the blood stem cells, which develop abnormally and overproduce, preventing your healthy stem cells from functioning normally.
In the body, blood stem cells develop into either lymphoid stem cells, a type of white blood cell that fights infection and destroy abnormal cells, or myeloid stem cells, which develop into either oxygen carrying red blood cells or bacteria killing white blood cells. While these cells normally provide an essential function in the body, an overproduction of them results in an excess of abnormal cells that overcrowd the healthy ones.
There are many different types of leukemia. They’re categorized based on how quickly the disease develops. If it develops rapidly with strong signs, it’s classified as acute; if it progresses slowly with milder symptoms, it’s considered chronic. Leukemia is also classified based on the type of blood stem cell that’s affected, lymphoid or myeloid.
Overall, there are four main categories of leukemia:
- Acute lymphocytic (ALL): The most common form of leukemia among children, ALL can also affect adults, particularly those over the age of 65.
- Chronic lymphocytic (CLL): This type of leukemia most commonly affects older adults and rarely occurs in children.
- Acute myelogenous (AML): Leukemia often seen in both children and adults.
- Chronic myelogenous (CML): A form of leukemia that primarily occurs in adults.
Within these four categories, there are also numerous subtypes of leukemia, including hair cell, prolymphocytic, monocytic, and megakaryocytic leukemia.
Signs and Symptoms of Leukemia
The severity of leukemia symptoms and how they appear can vary depending on whether the disease is acute or chronic. Acute leukemia symptoms can show up suddenly; in chronic cases, symptoms may appear slowly over a period of time.
One of the first symptoms of leukemia is a general feeling of being unwell. Sufferers may feel tired and experience bone pain, vomiting, headaches, and a loss of appetite. In acute cases, where symptoms appear rapidly, sufferers often think they simply have the flu.
Another common sign of leukemia is the appearance of bruises. These bruises most commonly appear on the arms and legs. This is because leukemia interferes with the body’s ability to generate blood platelets, which aid in clotting. Leukemia bruises tend to happen very easily, seemingly appearing without explanation.
A low platelet count caused by leukemia can also result in other blood-related symptoms, including bleeding from the nose, gums, lungs or, if blood appears in stool, from the bowels. It can also lead to the appearance of petechaiae, which are small red spots under the skin caused by broken capillaries.
Swelling in certain parts of the body can also be a sign of leukemia. Those suffering from leukemia often experience feeling full or bloated due to a build up of abnormal cells in their liver or spleen. They can also experience swelling in the armpits, groin, or neck area, which occurs when the condition has spread to the lymph nodes. Male leukemia sufferers may also have swelling in their testicles.
Another sign of leukemia is frequent infections. Since our white blood cells are typically tasked with fighting off infection, leukemia sufferers with non-functioning abnormal white blood cells tend to experience frequent cold sores or urinary tract, lung, gum, or anal infections that resist treatment by antibiotics.
Anemia is also a common sign of leukemia, as it’s a result of having a low red blood cell count. Since red blood cells are tasked with delivering oxygen to the various parts of the body, those with a low count may feel tired and dizzy, have pale skin and a fast heartbeat or feel short of breath.
There are several different types of treatment options available to those who are diagnosed with leukemia. The kind of treatment a patient receives depends on a number of factors, including the category, severity, and stage of the cancer and the patient’s age, genetics, and health history.
Chemotherapy, in which a patient is given a potent combination of oral or injected drugs over a number of clinical visits, is perhaps the most common form of leukemia treatment. It’s usually the first treatment option for those suffering from acute forms of the disease.
Chemotherapy is generally given in 3 phases and the treatment can take several years. While chemotherapy is effective, it can also be difficult, as the heavy drugs tend to come with side effects including fatigue, vomiting and hair loss.
If leukemia has spread or is likely to spread to the central nervous system, radiation therapy is often prescribed. Radiation therapy consists of machine produced ionized radiation waves that can be targeted at specific areas or applied to the entire body.
Radiation therapy may also be used to alleviate bone pain, shrink an enlarged spleen, or prepare the body for a stem cell transplant.
Stem Cell Treatment
For patients under age 55, a stem cell transplant may be a recommended treatment. However, this treatment option is usually only prescribed to those who are suffering from an acute form of leukemia who have gone into a period of remission.
Stem cell replacement involves a surgical procedure that replaces damaged bone marrow with healthy bone marrow. The healthy cells may come from the patient or from an outside donor who is an appropriate match.
In both acute and chronic cases of leukemia, targeted therapy can be a treatment option. With targeted therapy, drugs are prescribed to attack and kill specific parts of the cancer cells. Sometimes, targeted therapy is employed when chemotherapy isn’t effective, while in other cases the treatments are used together. Like chemotherapy, targeted therapy drugs can come with harsh side effects including rashes, diarrhea, muscle pain and fatigue.
Most of these therapies are combined with supportive therapies, which are meant to alleviate the symptoms of leukemia. Supportive therapies can include blood transfusions, antibiotics to combat infections, or drugs that promote growth in the body or that fight the high levels of chemicals in the blood that increase as cancer cells die off.
Prognosis: Surviving Leukemia
Although leukemia is a frightening and difficult disease, the good news is that the survival rate has more than quadrupled since the 1960s. Thanks to modern medicine, the prognosis seems to be improving every year, particularly for people under the age of 65.
As increasingly more developments happen through clinical trials and medical advancements, we can only expect these survival rate numbers to get better. While leukemia is still an incredibly challenging and life altering disease, the outlook is hopeful and perhaps in just a few years, leukemia will be considered nothing more than an inconvenient but curable disease.