What is Leukemia?

The type of cancer that affects the blood cells in the body is called Leukemia. Most of the time, it is the white blood cells that are targeted with this disease. Some types of leukemia are acute and the cancer grows rapidly, while other forms are chronic and the leukemia advances at a slow rate.

Physicians diagnose leukemia by taking a blood count and by examining the blood with the use of a microscope. It may also be necessary for a physician to perform a biopsy and take a tissue sample from bone marrow or the lymph nodes. This type of test will allow the physician to recognize the specific kind of leukemia and how fast it is growing.

What are the Symptoms of Leukemia?

The symptoms that each person experiences is determined by their specific type of leukemia diagnosis.

General symptoms include always feeling tired and weak, unexplained weight loss, bone and joint pain, continual infections, nosebleeds and enlarged lymph nodes. Some people see small red dots on their skin, known as petechiae, which are caused by bleeding capillaries. Individuals who have leukemia have the tendency to bruise very easily and bleed heavily, even with minor wounds.

Leukemia Causes

The direct causes of leukemia remain a mystery. While individuals diagnosed with the disease commonly have abnormal chromosomes, these defects don’t seem to cause the disease. Studies have shown that external factors play a part in developing leukemia. Smokers face a much greater risk of contracting the disease than non-smokers and exposure to radiation also increases the risk of developing leukemia. Cancer treatments, including chemotherapy and radiation therapy, have been known to cause leukemia as well.

In relation to cancer treatments, developing leukemia depends on the specific drugs used in chemotherapy regiments. Also, exposure to chemicals can also cause the disease, particularly in cases of prolonged and/or intense exposure.

There are indications that genetics do play a part. In studies of identical twins, it was found that, when one twin was born with leukemia, there was a 20% chance that the other twin would contract the illness as well. In most cases, the twin developed leukemia within one year.

How is Leukemia Treated?

After a leukemia diagnosis, a physician will recommend a specific treatment plan that is tailored for each patient. The most common form of treatment for leukemia is chemotherapy, which consists of chemicals that destroy cancer cells.

Other types of treatments for leukemia include radiation therapy, targeted therapy and biological therapy. A stem cell transplant is another option for individuals who have leukemia. Prior to the procedure, the patient’s bone marrow is destroyed by using a high amount of radiation or chemotherapy drugs. Next, the patient’s own stem cells or those from a donor are infused into the body to replace the destroyed bone marrow.

Leukemia Prevention

Considered to be primarily a childhood cancer, leukemia can’t presently be prevented. Most children and adults suffer from leukemia due to genetic risk factors, which are mostly factors that cannot be changed or altered.

In the case of exposure to radiation and chemotherapy drugs, doctors are aware that these treatments can raise the risk of contracting leukemia. Currently, researchers are looking for alternative ways to treat cancer that won’t raise the risk. Unlike cancer treatments, the exposure to radiation from X-rays and CT scans is very low and considered not intense enough to cause the occurrence of leukemia.

While environmental and lifestyle factors may play a part in the development of some cancers, that doesn’t appear to be the case with leukemia. Especially in cases of child leukemia, parents should be aware that there isn’t anything they could have done to prevent their child’s condition.