Leukemia, which means “clear blood” or “white blood” in Greek, is a form of cancer that causes a person’s bone marrow to produce abnormal white blood cells. Healthy white blood cells (WBC) are used by the immune system to ward off infections and disease. In a person living with leukemia, these defective blood cells grow at a faster rate than “healthy” cells. Subsequently, they also outlive and outnumber their normal counterparts. As a result, the affected individual’s immune system is weakened, which causes a number of additional health issues.
There are different types of leukemia, but all are classified as acute or chronic based on a number of factors. As indicated by its name, acute leukemia is the most aggressive type and causes the most rapid cellular and organ degeneration. Chronic leukemia, on the other hand, is considered to be a “sneakier” form of the disease. It can go undetected for years before an affected individual starts experiencing symptoms.
Leukemia symptoms can be as varied as the disease itself. For example, acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) typically only affects children while other forms of the disease such as chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) affects children and adults. The following are some of the most common leukemia symptoms:
- Recurrent infections
- Swollen liver, spleen and glands
- Mild to severe skeletal pain
- Fatigue with little or no prior exertion
- Effortless weight loss
- Frequent nosebleeds
- Skin discoloration in the form of small red spots
It is also worth mentioning that leukemia can easily be mistaken for other illnesses because many of the symptoms are similar to those related to other illnesses. This is just one reason why it is imperative to seek medical help as soon as you experience any of the aforementioned symptoms. Left untreated, chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) will gradually makes its way into an infected individual’s bloodstream. From there, the diseased cells will “attack” other parts of the body, which typically include the lymph nodes and the rest of the lymphatic system.
Cancer specialists utilize a process known as immunophenotyping, which is a method of classifying blood cells based on their composition, number and location, in order to determine how widespread the cancer is in the diagnosed person’s body. This is accomplished via various lab tests that include tissue sampling.
Unfortunately, health care professionals still do not know exactly what causes leukemia. They have, however, found that a number of genetic and environmental factors increase an individual’s odds of developing the disease. For example, cancer survivors, especially those who were exposed to radiation, are believed to be at risk. Smokers and people who work in factories or live in environments where they are regularly exposed to harsh chemicals are also at risk. Additionally, people with a history of leukemia in their respective families as well as individuals living with Down syndrome have also been found to be more susceptible to developing leukemia than others.
Leukemia is curable, thanks to a number of methodologies that include chemotherapy, stem cell transplants and prescription drugs. Unfortunately, the survival rate for children is still lower than that of adults, especially children who have been diagnosed as having advanced forms leukemia. The good news is that the survival rate has increased overall within the last decade.
Today, there are a number of online and offline support groups such as the National Cancer Institute that can help people living with leukemia learn how to cope with the disease and improve their overall quality of life. Additionally, individuals can also find emotional and spiritual support by discussing their fears with other loved ones and religious and non-religious counsellors.