What you need to know about Leukemia

Understanding Leukemia

Characterized by abnormal white blood cells, leukemia is a progressive group of cancers originating within bone marrow. Some forms of leukemia grow slowly and others develop and spread at a very rapid pace. The five-year survival rate can be as high at nearly 90 percent for some forms of leukemia. If children with leukemia remain cancer-free for at least five years after initial treatment, it is unlikely the same type of cancer will return. As with other forms of cancer, early detection and treatment is important.

Types of Leukemia

The most common type of leukemia affecting younger children, acute lymphocytic leukemia often occurs early in life in white blood cells called lymphocytes located in bone marrow. Characterized by abnormal white blood cells called myeloblasts, acute myelogenous leukemia is more common in adults, although children may also develop it. Chronic lymphocytic leukemia and chronic myelogenous leukemia are unique in that there may be no need for treatment for several years with these forms of leukemia, although a point may be reached where abnormal cells grow rapidly. A rare, slow-growing type of leukemia, hairy cell leukemia results in too many B cells (lymphocytes).

Possible Causes of Leukemia

There's evidence inherited and environmental factors may play a role in the development of leukemia. The resulting changes in cells result in mutations in the DNA of white blood cells. The exact reason why blood cells become abnormal isn't yet known to researchers. The abnormal cells continue to multiple and thrive, eventually reaching a point where healthy cells are crowded out.

Who's at Risk?

Other than the 19 to 40 year-old group, leukemia affects all age ranges about equally. There are fewer instances of this type of cancer among young adults, although there is no clear explanation for this statistical anomaly. Some forms of leukemia run in families. Individuals with the Philadelphia chromosome gene mutation are also more susceptible to developing leukemia. While it is the most common cancer in children and teens, childhood leukemia is still considered rare. Approximately 90 percent of all types of leukemia are diagnosed in adults. According to the National Cancer Institute, leukemia (all types) ranks sixth among the ten most common forms of cancer in the United States with more than 60,000 new cases each year and about 24,000 lives claimed annually.

Living with Leukemia

Fear is an understandable first response when first diagnosed with leukemia. It’s a condition you or a loved one will be living with long-term, even during periods of remission. Take away some of this fear by getting as much information about leukemia as possible. Your doctor should be able to point you in the right direction. The American Cancer Society also provides plenty of useful online info in a way that’s easy to digest. Children with leukemia often benefit from various therapies, including art therapy and other interactive techniques that allow and encourage kids to express their feelings and concerns. Adults may benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy or psychological counseling to learn how to effectively cope and express their concerns in a way that’s healthy and productive. There’s also evidence that making changes to diet and getting regular exercise may help ease discomfort and strengthen the body’s immune system.

Among the encouraging findings from scientists is that a stem cell bio-marker may predict how well a leukemia patient may respond to chemotherapy and a cancer vaccine that may prolong periods of remission. Some forms of leukemia may be prevented to some extent by avoiding smoking or the use of tobacco products and staying away from formaldehyde and benzene, an organic chemical compound found in cigarette smoke and crude oil. Individuals who were previously treated for another type of cancer with high doses radiation during chemotherapy are also at risk for developing leukemia. Yet there is no certainty cancer will form simply because one or more risk factors may apply to you. Having risk factors, such as cancer running in your family, does, however, provide an incentive to get regular screenings and maintain a healthy lifestyle.