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What is Leukemia

What is Leukemia

Leukemia is a type of cancer, where the bone marrow produces abnormal white blood cells. Find out more about what is leukemia, its causes, types, symptoms, and treatment, through this HealthHearty article.
Chandramita Bora
Last Updated: Feb 10, 2018
Leukemia is a type of cancer that affects the bone marrow. It is known as the cancer of the bone marrow or blood, and is characterized by the production of abnormal blood cells, especially abnormal white blood cells or leukocytes. The name of this disease comes from two Greek words, leukos, which means white and aima, which means blood.
Types of Leukemia
This cancer is classified into four types, and this classification is based on the type of blood cells that are affected, and the rate at which the disease progresses. When the disease progresses quite rapidly, and causes the production and accumulation of immature and abnormal white blood cells, it is known as acute leukemia. The immature white blood cells cannot function properly.
On the other hand, chronic leukemia progresses slowly, and thus, allows more mature blood cells to be produced. Such cells can function properly for a while. Another classification is based on the type of cells that are affected by this cancer.
When the cancer affects lymphocytes, it is called lymphocytic leukemia. But when myeloid cells are affected, it is known as myelogenous leukemia. So, there are basically four types of leukemia - acute lymphocytic leukemia, acute myelogenous leukemia, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, and chronic myelogenous leukemia.
Causes and Risk Factors
What exactly causes this cancer is still not known, but it is usually associated with the mutation in the DNA of some blood cells.
Several factors are considered as the risk factors for this cancer, of which the most important ones are, previous cancer treatment with chemotherapy and radiation therapy, genetic diseases like Down syndrome, exposure to high levels of radiation and chemicals like benzene, petrochemicals, and hair dyes, smoking, a family history of leukemia, certain blood disorders like myelodysplastic, and viruses like human T-lymphotropic virus.
Apart from these, some people can have a genetic predisposition to develop this cancer.
Leukemia Symptoms
This cancer causes the production of abnormal white blood cells that cannot function properly. White blood cells are an important component of the immune system, and are responsible for fighting infectious agents like bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens. But abnormal white blood cells cannot perform these functions effectively, for which the affected individual becomes more susceptible to infections.
The signs and symptoms of leukemia can vary to an extent depending on the specific type. Nevertheless, the following are the most common signs and symptoms that this cancer can produce:
  • Fever with chills and night sweats
  • Excessive and unusual fatigue and malaise
  • Frequent infections
  • Easy bleeding or bruising
  • Headaches
  • Loss of appetite
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Enlarged liver and spleen
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Bone pain
  • Joint pain
  • Appearance of small red spots on the skin, known as petechiae
Diagnosis and Treatment
This cancer is usually diagnosed with some diagnostic procedures, along with physical examination. An enlarged liver or spleen, and abnormal lumps or swollen lymph nodes are usually revealed during a physical examination. Additionally, the skin may look paler. The diagnostic procedures that are employed for an accurate diagnosis of this cancer are, complete blood count test, peripheral blood smear, cytogenic analysis, bone marrow biopsy, and spinal tap.
The treatment of this cancer depends on the specific type, the stage of the disease, the age of the individual, and his or her overall health condition. In general, acute leukemia requires more aggressive treatment than chronic leukemia. The usual treatment options for this cancer are, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, biological therapy, target therapy, and bone marrow transplant. In chemotherapy, drugs are used to destroy the cancerous cells, while biological or immunotherapy assists or stimulates the immune system to destroy the cancerous cells.
Target therapy generally uses some medications that can inhibit the growth of cancerous cells by targeting certain specific molecules that are required by these cells to proliferate. Radiation therapy, on the other hand, is used to shrink the tumor. All these therapies can cause several side effects, and some of these can be quite painful.
Apart from these, there is another treatment option, which is known as stem cell transplant. It involves the replacement of the diseased bone marrow with healthy bone marrow. The diseased bone marrow is destroyed with the help of chemotherapy drugs and radiation therapy, before infusing the healthy stem cells. These stem cells help build the bone marrow.
Disclaimer: This article is for informative purposes only, and should not be treated as a substitute for professional medical advice.