Fact: Most leukemias have no familial link
What is leukemia?
Leukemia is cancer of the blood cells. It starts in the bone marrow, the soft tissue inside most bones. Bone marrow is where blood cells are made.
- White blood cells help your body fight infection.
- Red blood cells carry oxygen to all parts of your body.
- Platelets help your blood clot.
When you have leukemia, the bone marrow starts to make a lot of abnormal white blood cells, called leukemia cells. They don't do the work of normal white blood cells. They grow faster than normal cells, and they don't stop growing when they should.
Over time, leukemia cells can crowd out the normal blood cells. This can lead to serious problems such as anemia, bleeding, and infections. Leukemia cells can also spread to the lymph nodes or other organs and cause swelling or pain.
Different types of leukemia
There are several different types of leukemia. In general, leukemia is grouped by how fast it gets worse and what kind of white blood cell it affects.
- It may be acute or chronic. Acute leukemia gets worse very fast and may make you feel sick right away. Chronic leukemia gets worse slowly and may not cause symptoms for years.
- It may be lymphocytic or myelogenous. Lymphocytic (or lymphoblastic) leukemia affects white blood cells called lymphocytes. Myelogenous leukemia affects the other type of cells that normally become granulocytes, red blood cells, or platelets.
- Some general symptoms of leukemia include:
- Fever, chills
- Fatigue, weakness
- Loss of appetite, weight loss
- Night sweats
- Bone/joint pain
- Abdominal discomfort
- Shortness of breath
- Frequent infections
- Easy bruising or bleeding
- Petechiae (small red spots under the skin)
Other potential symptoms of leukemia
Because some conditions coincide with the presence of the disease, the following may be signs of leukemia:
- Anemia: A low red blood cell count. Red blood cells carry oxygen around the body. This condition may contribute to weakness, fatigue or shortness of breath.
- Leukopenia: A low white blood cell count. A decrease in the production of functional leukocytes (white blood cells) weakens the body's immune defense, which can make you more prone to infections.
- Thrombocytopenia: A low blood platelet count. Platelets are the blood cells responsible for blood clotting. A shortage of bloods platelets may lead to easy bruising or bleeding.
- Swollen lymph nodes: In some cases, the signs of leukemia may include noticeable swelling of the neck, armpit or groin. This occurs when leukemia has spread to the lymph nodes.
- Enlarged liver or spleen: The build-up of abnormal blood cells in the liver or spleen may cause a feeling of fullness (loss of appetite) or swelling in the upper left side of the abdomen.
Leukemia risk factors
- Gender: Men are more likely to develop CML, CLL and AML than women.
- Age: The risk of most leukemias, with the exception of ALL, typically increases with age.
- Family history: Most leukemias have no familial link. However, first degree relatives of CLL patients, or having an identical twin who has or had AML or ALL, may put you at an increased risk for developing the disease.
- Genetic diseases: Certain genetic abnormalities, such as Down syndrome, may play a role in the development of leukemia.
- Smoking: Although smoking may not be a direct cause of leukemia, smoking cigarettes does increase the risk of developing AML.
- Exposure to high levels of radiation: Exposure to high-energy radiation (e.g., atomic bomb explosions) and intense exposure to low-energy radiation from electromagnetic fields (e.g., power lines).
- Chemical exposure: Long-term exposure to certain pesticides or industrial chemicals like benzene is considered to be a risk for leukemia.
- Previous cancer treatment: Certain types of chemotherapy and radiation therapy for other cancers are considered leukemia risk factors
How is leukemia diagnosed?
To find out if you have leukemia, a doctor will:
- Ask questions about your past health and symptoms.
- Do a physical exam. The doctor will look for swollen lymph nodes and check to see if your spleen or liver is enlarged.
- Order blood tests. Leukemia causes a high level of white blood cells and low levels of other types of blood cells.
If your blood tests aren't normal, the doctor may want to do a bone marrow biopsy. This test lets the doctor look at cells from inside your bone. This can give key information about what type of leukemia it is so you can get the right treatment.
How is it treated?
What type of treatment you need will depend on many things, including what kind of leukemia you have, how far along it is, and your age and overall health.
- If you have acute leukemia, you will need quick treatment to stop the rapid growth of leukemia cells.
- Chronic lymphocytic leukemia may not need to be treated until you have symptoms. But chronic myelogenous leukemia will probably be treated right away.
- Chemotherapy. This is the main treatment for most types of leukemia.
- Stem cell transplant. Stem cells can rebuild your supply of normal blood cells and boost your immune system.
- Targeted therapy. This is the use of special medicines that stop cancer cells from multiplying
Want to learn more?
The following are organizations and/or websites dedicated to providing information and education surrounding Leukemia. These organizations are dedicated to research, education, awareness, and/or support. They are listed in Alphabetical order without any preference or prejudice. Listing these organizations is not a recommendation or referral in any regard for seeking treatment or consultation or support for treatment.
American Cancer Society
Cancer Treatment Centers of America
Leukemia & Lymphoma Society