Facts about Leukemia

Leukemia is a type of cancer that begins in the bone marrow, which is the soft tissue in your bones responsible for producing red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. Some of these cells can mutate to become a leukemia cell, which further divides into more unhealthy cells. As the cancerous bone marrow creates more and more leukemia cells, they push healthy cells out and replace them, making it difficult for the blood to function properly, and leading to serious medical problems.

There are four main types of leukemia split into two categories depending on how the leukemia progresses and the difference between normal and abnormal cells.

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Acute Leukemias

Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (AML) is a cancer that spreads rapidly in the blood and bone marrow. Due to the original leukemic cell, the bone marrow produces numerous blasts, or undeveloped, nonfunctional cells. Under healthy circumstances, these cells would develop into white blood cells that fight infection, red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout the body, or platelets to aid in clotting. However, in a person with AML, these blasts do not undergo normal development and hinder the production of new cells.

Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL) is a cancer similar to acute myelogenous leukemia except that, rather than affecting all types of cells, it begins in lymphocytes. Lymphocytes are white blood cells that defend the body against infections. The bone marrow creates numerous undeveloped cells known as blasts, which in a healthy person would become lymphocytes. In a person with ALL, however, these blasts do not develop normally into white blood cells. The abnormal cells then take up space in the marrow usually devoted to healthy cells, and hamper the creation of new cells. This process can lead to a reduction in red blood cells and the development of anemia, as well as a reduction in white blood cells that leads to a weaker immune system.

Chronic Leukemias

Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL), like other types of leukemia, develops in the blood and bone marrow. Chronic leukemia progresses at a slower rate than acute leukemia, yet still affects lymphocytes, which typically fight infection. CLL creates too many nonfunctional lymphocytes that take the place of healthy cells. As the cancerous cells continue to multiply, they hamper the effectiveness of functional lymphocytes, leading to a weak immune system. Anemia and slow healing can also occur in a CLL patient as red blood cells and platelets are replaced by the abnormal lymphocytes.

Chronic Myeloid Leukemia (CML) is a slow-growing type of leukemia in which the marrow creates nearly-functional blood cells—red, white, and platelets—in disproportionate numbers. Many white blood cells and platelets are made, while fewer red blood cells are formed. The blood flow begins to slow down as the amount of white blood cells increases and patients may experience severe anemia due to the decrease in red blood cells.

The symptoms for each type of leukemia vary, but common symptoms include fever and chills, fatigue, frequent infections, loss of weight and appetite, swollen lymph nodes, easy bruising or bleeding, shortness of breath, bone pain, night sweats, and bleeding into the skin.

A complete blood count, or CBC, is a blood test that measures red blood cell count, white blood cell count, hemoglobin levels, and platelet count, among others. It is commonly used to diagnose leukemia. Other methods used for diagnosing leukemia include marrow biopsies, spinal fluid tests, physical exams, chromosome screenings, and chest X-rays.

Treatments for leukemia may include chemotherapy, radiation, biological therapy, targeted therapies such as kinase inhibitors, and bone marrow and stem-cell transplantations.