Leukemia is the cancer of the blood or blood-forming tissue called bone marrow. It is a life-threatening medical condition that is associated with the production of abnormal white blood cells by the blood-forming tissue. Exposure to radiation or genetic or environmental factors may be responsible for causing this deadly disease. Depending on the rate at which the disease progresses, one may be diagnosed with acute or chronic leukemia. When there is a rapid increase in the number of abnormal and immature blood cells, one is diagnosed with acute leukemia. Under these circumstances, the bone marrow is unable to produce healthy blood cells and the abnormal cells soon start spreading to other parts of the body and cause damage to the organs. On the other hand, chronic leukemia progresses slowly. The rate at which these abnormal white cells are produced is faster than the rate at which normal cells are produced. Over a period of time, the leukemia cells outgrow the healthy cells.
Leukemia is also classified into lymphocytic leukemia and myelogenous leukemia. This classification is based on the type of bone marrow cells that is affected. Lymphocytic or lymphoblastic leukemia occurs when the lymphoid stem cells that first mature into lymphoblasts and go on to form white blood cells, get affected. If the myeloid stem cells that go on to form red blood cells, white blood cells or platelets, get affected, then one is diagnosed with myelogenous leukemia. Categorizing leukemia into stages is quite difficult. Unlike other types of cancer, where the size of cancerous growth can help in determining the stage, leukemia can spread to various parts of the body at a very fast rate. So, is it possible to determine what stage one may be going through and what would happen in the final stages of leukemia? Here's some information that might provide you with an answer to this question.
Stages of Leukemia
Leukemia can be broadly be classified into four types. These include acute lymphocytic leukemia, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, acute myelogenous leukemia and chronic myelogenous leukemia. Chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), which is also known as chronic myeloid leukemia, mostly affects children and is divided into three phases. These three phases are referred to as the chronic phase, accelerated phase and blastic phase. The percentage of cancerous cells in blood and bone marrow samples is used to determine the phase. In the first phase, the percentage of cancerous cells is less than five percent whereas the percentage of such cells lies between five to thirty percent in the second phase. The final phase of chronic myelogenous leukemia refers to the phase when the percentage of cancerous cells exceeds thirty percent. A variety of distressing symptoms may be experienced in this phase. If the treatment options work, the disease may go in remission. At times, leukemia could also relapse. As far as the acute myeloid leukemia is concerned, the progression of the disease is very fast. As the bone marrow starts producing large numbers of immature white blood cells or abnormal myeloblasts, one becomes prone to various health problems. Anemia, weight loss, shortness of breath, slow recovery from health problems, swollen lymph nodes, bruising, swelling and bleeding in gums are some of the symptoms that may be experienced in the final stages of acute myeloid leukemia.
As mentioned earlier, there is no clear-cut or standard staging system for all forms of leukemia. For instance, in case of acute lymphocytic leukemia in adults, terms such as recurrent, untreated, or in remission are used with reference to the patient's condition. These terms hint at the progression of disease or the patient's chances of survival. Chronic lymphocytic leukemia is roughly divided into five stages. The first stage or stage 0, is signified by an increase in the number of lymphocytes. Though the number of lymphocytes is more than normal, the patient doesn't experience any symptoms. In the second stage, the number of lymphocytes is high, but red blood cell count and platelet count is normal. Enlargement of lymph nodes may take place in this stage. Changes in the size of liver and spleen may be seen in the second stage. In the third stage, the patient may suffer from anemia. In the final stage, the other organs may get affected due to an enormous increase in the number of abnormal cells and decrease in the number of red blood cells and platelets. Since cancerous cells outgrow the healthy disease-fighting white blood cells, one may suffer from frequent infections in the last stages of leukemia. Weakness, anemia, fatigue, fever, chills, excessive sweating, easy bruising and bleeding are some of the symptoms that may be experienced in the advanced stages.
Treatment of Leukemia
The treatment approach would vary depending on the type of leukemia. Since the progression of the disease takes place at a very fast rate, acute leukemia must be treated at the earliest. When the symptoms are no longer exhibited by the patient, the cancer is said to be in remission. In order to prevent the cancer from coming back, maintenance therapy is required. Doctors may follow a 'wait-and-watch' approach in case of chronic leukemia. Early detection and treatment of leukemia is extremely important. With the advancements in medical science, the prognosis and survival rates have certainly improved. Radiation therapy, chemotherapy, biological therapy, target therapy and stem cell transplant are the treatment options that are commonly recommended. Chemotherapy involves the use of certain chemical agents in order to kill the cancerous cells, while radiation therapy involves the use of high-energy rays for killing the cells. Biological therapy involves the use of certain antibodies in order to improve the body's immune responses. Targeted therapy is another type of approach that involves using drugs in order to block the action of any substance that may be aggravating the growth of the cancerous cells. Stem cell transplantation, which aims at rebuilding the bone marrow, may be recommended only if the disease relapses.
Living with leukemia or blood cancer is not easy. A patient may feel overwhelmed with negative emotions such as fear or sadness during the advanced stages of this medical condition. It is the duty of family and friends to provide emotional support to the patient. If diagnosed and treated during the early stages, leukemia could go into remission. So, consult a doctor if you have been suffering from recurrent infections or any other aforementioned symptoms.