Leukaemia affects people and families of all ages and walks of life. It can't be screened for, or prevented.
You can, however, be prepared. This page outlines the key facts surrounding Leukaemia, its symptoms and treatments.
What is Leukaemia?
There are four types of Leukaemia, all of which are cancers of blood cells, beginning in bone marrow. Most commonly Leukaemia is a cancer of white blood cells, but red blood cells or platelets can be affected in some cases.
When cells are affected, they no longer behave the same way, and don't die off when they should do. They can also reproduce at a faster rate. These factors combine to cause an over-abundance of these cells, which prevents normal cells from being present in the right ratios. Eventually, they can 'spill out' of the area and travel to infect other areas of the body.
The disease affects one of two types of blood cells: lymphoid or myeloid. Plus it manifests quickly (accute) or more gradually (chronic).
From this we have the four types:
- acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL)
- chronic lymphoblastic leukaemia (CLL)
- acute myeloid leukaemia (AML)
- chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML)
What are the symptoms of Leukaemia?
There is a range of potential symptoms, some more common than others. They can be quite mild to begin with, or you may have no recognisable symptoms at all.
The most common symptoms are a result of an imbalance of one of the three types of blood cells.
These main symptoms are:
- Feeling tired or weak. Looking 'washed out'. Shortness of breath. (Which can be due to a lack of red blood cells.)
- Being susceptible to infections, or infections reoccuring. (Which can be due to a lack of white blood cells.)
- Bruising and/or bleeding more easily or more severly. (Which can be due to a lack of platelets.)
- Joint pain, or 'bone pain'.
- Swollen and tender gums.
- Rashes on the skin.
- Headaches or vision troubles.
- Noticeably enlarged lymph nodes.
- Stomach pain (caused by an enlarged spleen).
- Chest pains.
As with most diagnoses, all of these symptoms could be caused by a range of other conditions. It's therefore important that you consult your GP before jumping to any conclusions. Even you are found to be lacking in certain types of blood cells, there are still potential causes other than Leukaemia or cancer.
How is Leukaemia diagnosed?
There are several methods that can be used to reach a diagnosis of Leukaemia, and if present, its progression. Typically, less intrusive methods are used first, and further tests ordered if the results (along with your reported symptoms) point towards potential signs of the disease.
Initial tests will likely start from your GP, and depending on your symptoms and test results, you may be referred to a specialist to continue with more focused investigations.
This is typically where testing begins, and can find out whether there are Leukaemia cells present in your blood, or if your blood levels are abnormal in some way.
Bone Marrow Biopsy
A long needle is used to extract a tiny sample of bone marrow, usually from the hip. This sample is then sent for analysis. A local anaesthetic is typically used for adults, and a general anaesthetic for children.
A x-ray of the chest, specifically of the heart and lungs, can help identify any enlarged lymph nodes, which can be an indicator of certain types of Leukaemia.
Fluid from around the spine is extracted for analysis to see if any Leukaemia cells have travelled to this area. Like the biopsy, this can be uncomfortable, so anaestheic is typically used.
What are the treatments for Leukaemia?
Potential treatments will vary depending on the type of Leukaemia and the stage (progression) of the disease. Acute forms are faster acting, so typically require different treatments to chronic forms, that develop more gradually.
Whilst Leukaemia is a form of cancer, there is not a specific tumor to biopsy or consider for surgical removal. Although in some cases, the removal of the spleen may be considered.
Chemotherapy is therefore often used to treat Leukaemia, as well as other forms of radiation therapy. Blood stem cells and bone marrow transplants are also used in acute forms.
In early stages of chronic forms, it may only be necessary to have regular tests to keep a watchful eye on any progression.
If discovered late, or if prior treatments have been unsuccesful, palliative care may be employed to ease symptoms and make the patient as comfortable as possible.
What are the causes and risk factors surrounding Leukaemia?
There are no single known causes, as Leukaemia is a result of genetic mutations. Whilst you might be genetically predisposed to such mutations, most cases are not thought to be hereditary. Although you have no control over your genes, additional lifestyle factors can add to the risk factors. These are aspects that generally increase all cancer risks, such as smoking or frequent exposure to certain chemicals. You can also have an increased risk if you are already diagnosed with an existing gene or blood disorder.
Can Leukaemia be prevented?
Sadly, at this time there is no known proven methods for the prevention of Leukaemia, and there are no methods for screening for it. These are avenues of research, along with more effective treatments and cures, that we aim to help support.
*Whilst every effort has been taken to ensure the accuracy of the information on this page, it should not be considered to be medical advice. Please ensure you consult a registered medical practitioner if you or a loved one require a professional opinion.
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