What is leukemia?

Leukemia affects the tissues that make up your lymphatic system. This is a large network of organs and tissues that create, carry and store the cells that help your body fight diseases. It includes your bone marrow, lymphatic vessels, lymph nodes, thymus and spleen. Leukemia can affect any of the parts of the system.

There are many types of leukemia. Some are more common in children, while others happen more often in adults. In most cases, leukemia affects your white blood cells. However, each affects you a little differently.

Types of leukemia
Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL) Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL) Chronic Myeloid Leukemia (CML)

Types of leukemia

Leukemia can be fast growing or slow growing. Within those two categories, there are many types, including:

Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL)

A fast-growing leukemia that starts in your bone marrow.

Acute myeloid leukemia (AML)

A fast-growing leukemia that usually starts in cells that would eventually become white blood cells.

Chronic myeloid leukemia (CML)

This leukemia starts in bone marrow cells and moves into your blood.

Chronic myelomonocytic leukemia (CMML)

This leukemia starts in the bone marrow cells that form blood; it affects older adults more often than younger ones.

Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)

This slower growing leukemia starts in white blood cells in your bone marrow, it's more common among older adults.

Juvenile leukemia

A classification of multiple leukemias, mostly ALL or AML, it is the most common cancer affecting kids, according to the American Cancer Society.

Causes of leukemia

Doctors don't know what causes leukemia. They do know that it develops when certain blood cells mutate, meaning the DNA inside them spontaneously changes. DNA tells every cell what it should do. These changes create fast growth of unhealthy new cells that eventually outnumber healthy, normal blood cells. That's when most people experience symptoms.

Risk factors for leukemia

Some of the biggest risk factors include exposure to chemicals and exposure to high doses of radiation. Scientists have also found that genetics play a role.

Common risk factors include:

  • Smoking
  • Exposure to chemicals, such as benzene
  • Having close family members who have had leukemia
  • Having had chemotherapy or radiation cancer treatments in the past
  • Having genetic syndromes, such as Down syndrome or Fanconi anemia
  • Having myelodysplastic syndrome, a disorder that causes bone marrow to fail
  • Exposure to radiation from an atomic bomb explosion or an accident at a nuclear reactor

Symptoms of leukemia

Symptoms may differ depending on the type of leukemia.

Some of the most common symptoms among all forms of leukemia include:

  • Night sweats
  • Bruising easily
  • Unexplained fevers
  • Frequent infections
  • Tenderness in bones
  • Nosebleeds that keep happening
  • Weakness and fatigue that won't go away
  • Swelling of the lymph nodes, spleen or liver

Diagnosis of leukemia

If you experience any symptoms that worry you or don’t go away, make an appointment with your doctor.

After looking at your medical history, your doctor will do a physical exam to check for signs like swollen lymph nodes and pale skin.

You can also expect tests such as:

  • Blood tests to measure your red and white blood cells
  • Bone marrow tests to take samples of your bone marrow to look at under a microscope
  • Advanced testing, such as cytogenic studies that look at how chromosomes in your cells have changed
  • Imaging like ultrasounds, CT scans, MRIs or PET scans to get a look at your organs and bones to see if the leukemia is affecting them

Treatments for leukemia

Before deciding on treatment, your doctor will check to see if the leukemia has spread around your body. You'll also take your age and health into consideration. Common treatment options include:

  • Stem cell transplants to replace your bone marrow
  • Radiation to kill cancer cells with powerful beams of energy
  • Chemotherapy, the main treatment form, which uses powerful chemicals to kill the cancer cells
  • Immunotherapy, which involves taking special medications that help your immune system attack the cancer cells

Recovery from leukemia

Your recovery depends on many factors. The type of leukemia you have and how early you can catch it make a big difference. Working with your doctor to find the right treatment plan is important. Having a strong support system is also helpful.

The main goal of treatment is for your leukemia to go into remission, meaning that it doesn't come back. Treatment may continue for several years, or until the disease is gone.

After that, you'll need to attend regular follow-up appointments with your cancer doctor, so they can make sure the leukemia hasn't returned. It is unusual for most types of leukemia to return if you have no signs of it within a few years of your treatment ending.

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