The word leukemia comes from the Greek words 'leukos' and 'heima', which mean white blood and refers to excess white blood cells in the body. Leukemia is a type of cancer of the blood and bone marrow, and comprises a broad spectrum of diseases.
It is characterized by the abnormal production and multiplication of blood cells in the body, usually white blood cells. The blood cells grow in the bone marrow and divide to form new body cells as per the body's requirements (old cells die and have to be replaced by new cells). However, when the old cells do not die and the body cells divide rapidly, thereby producing more and more cells in the body, then the problem of cancer arises.
For people with leukemia, the bone marrow produces a large number of white blood cells which are known as leukemia cells or leukocytes. In the initial stages, leukemia cells function normally. However, with time they begin to overcrowd the other blood cells and make it difficult for the blood to carry out its work. The body's ability to fight infections reduces. In some, the number of leukemia cells or leukocytes are so high that the blood actually has a whitish tinge.
Discovery of Leukemia
The credit for its discovery goes to the ancient Greeks, who recognized this blood disease way back in the 4th or 5th century BC. However, it was first officially diagnosed by John Hughes Benett in Edinburgh in 1845. Further, in the 19th century, several European physicians noticed that quite a few of their patients suffered from abnormally high levels of white blood cells. They called this condition 'weisses blut', which meant white blood.
In 1913, leukemia was classified into four types:
- Chronic lymphocytic leukemia
- Chronic myelogenous leukemia
- Acute lymphocytic leukemia
- Acute myelogenous leukemia (Erythroleukemia)
Further, in 1970 it was confirmed that leukemia could be cured, and by the 1980s and 1990s the patients cured were around 70%. This increased the hopes of all the patients worldwide. People have been battling cancer for ages, the difference being they did not know the details about what they were fighting against.
Today, the number of children seen to be affected by this disease is very high. The reason can be attributed to the lifestyle changes that have come along. Another probable reason could be that the percentage of mothers who breastfeed their children has come down drastically. During breastfeeding, the child's immune system comes across antibodies from the mother's body and evolves to respond to infections after birth. However, children who haven't been breastfed are more prone to develop leukemia, as they do not confront microbes in their early years.
Industrialized nations are more susceptible to leukemia because people residing in such nations are constantly coming in contact with chemicals, such as high levels of benzene and formaldehyde (at workplaces). Exposure to radiation via atomic bomb explosion or medical treatments such as chemotherapy and high amount of pesticides are also risk factors that can lead to leukemia. People suffering from Down syndrome are also prone to this blood disease.
The oldest and primary treatment for leukemia was arsenic. In the 18th century, Thomas Fowler created a solution comprising arsenic trioxide and potassium bicarbonate, and called it Fowler's solution. This solution became a standard remedy to treat Hodgkin's disease, anemia, and leukemia. However, in the early 20th century, arsenic was replaced by radiation therapy. Radiation therapy was found to be very beneficial in curing leukemia.
The American Cancer Society says that the early radiologists used the skin of their own hands to test the strength of radiation from the radiotherapy machines in search of the appropriate doses (to get pink skin after radiation), which was to be the right amount for the treatment. Sadly, most of them came down with leukemia.
It was only after World War II that chemotherapy came in as a treatment for leukemia. Further, in the 1940s more and more new treatments such as aminopterin, 6-mercaptopurin, and 6-mercaptopurine came about. The discovery of DNA has helped understand the detailed mechanisms of cancer and the reason why it occurs. Bone marrow transplants are known to be the best cure for leukemia today. Genetic analysis is expected to open new doors towards the treatment and cure of leukemia in the future.
Leukemia at a glance is a cancer of the blood cells and although the cause of this disease is not known, the risk factors that lead to it have been identified. People need to be careful about the amount of radiation and chemicals they are being exposed to.