Leukemia: Symptoms, Risk Factors, Medicines & Treatments
Commonly asked questions about leukemia:
- What is leukemia?
- What are the types of leukemia?
- What are the risk factors associated with leukemia?
- What are the symptoms associated with leukemia?
- Is leukemia curable?
- How can leukemia be cured?
- What drugs are used to treat leukemia?
What Is Leukemia?
Leukemia is a cancer that originates in the blood cells of the human body.
When healthy, bone marrow produces a large amount of the blood cells found in the body. However, when cancer begins to form, the cancerous cells will begin to take over the bone marrow and prevent the production of healthy blood cells.
Not a single form of cancer, leukemia is a category of blood based cancers of which there are four main types that depend on the type of blood cell that has become cancerous. Regardless of the specific type, leukemia occurs in its greatest numbers in adults over the age of 55. However, leukemia is also the most common cancer in those younger than 15 years old.
In addition to the four main forms of leukemia, any form of leukemia can be defined as acute or chronic depending on the growth rate. Fast-growing leukemia that quickly develops into a dangerous condition is referred to as acute leukemia, while slow-growing cancer that does not quickly worsen is referred to as chronic leukemia.
According to the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program of the National Cancer Institute, more than 60,000 cases of leukemia will be diagnosed in the United States in 2016. In addition to those new cases, a reported 24,400 Americans will die from leukemia-related causes in the same calendar year.
What Are The Types Of Leukemia?
There are four main forms of leukemia that an individual may be diagnosed with. The types of leukemia differ, based on which cells they start in, how quickly they grow, which people they can affect and how they are treated.
There are two subcategories of lukemia: acute and chronic. Chronic leukemia is identified as a slow-growing leukemia, where as acute leukemia is fast growing and progresses quickly without treatment.
Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML)
Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is the most commonly diagnosed acute leukemia in adult patients. In this specific form of blood cancer, the body suffers from an excess of myeloblasts — a type of white blood cell.
In having the acute designation, AML will develop rapidly and uncontrollably if proper detection and treatment does not happen early in its initial stages of development.
Overall, AML is routinely associated with an overall five-year survival rate of 26 percent. However, that rate increases to 66.5 percent when diagnosed in those younger than 15 years old.
Chronic Myeloid Leukemia (CML)
Chronic myeloid leukemia a form of cancer that affects the bone marrow and blood.
The cancer begins in the blood forming cells of the bone marrow and then slowly spreads to the blood. Eventually, the disease spreads to other regions of the body.
CML is generally associated with an abnormal chromosome, known as the Philadelphia chromosome (Ph chromosome).
According to the American Cancer Society, there were roughly 5,050 cases of CML in the United States in 2009. CML usually accounts for 10-15 percent of all types of leukemia.
In 2001, the drug Gleevec was created that helped treat people with CML. About 90 percent of people who were treated with Gleevic had normal white blood cells and chromosme studies after five years on the drug.
Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL)
Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL) is a form of cancer that starts from the early version of white blood cells in the bone marrow.
Leukemia cells invade the blood very quickly then proceed to spread to other regions of the body.
ALL affects about 6,000 people per year, and about two-thirds of those 6000 people are children.
ALL is the least common type of leukemia in adults. Cancer Research UK states that the survival rate for ALL is about 70 percent overall between children and adults.
Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL)
Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL) starts to form in cells that become white blood cells, known as lymphocytes in the bone marrow then, over time, go into the blood.
CLL builds up slowly over time and many people who have it do not notice any sort of symptoms for a few years. Over time, the cancer will spread to other regions of the body, such as the lymph nodes, liver and spleen.
What Are Leukemia Risk Factors?
The Comprehensive Cancer Center at Michigan University states that most cases of leukemia cannot be prevented due to the fact there is no known cause. However, there are several factors that may lead to the cause of leukemia, including:
- Smoking: Smoking has become a proven risk factor in developing AML. Smoking has a direct affect in promoting cancer in the lungs, mouth and throat. However, it can also affect cells that it does not come into direct contact with. There are cancer-causing substances in tobacco smoke that can get into the blood stream and spread to different regions of the body.
- Chemicals: Exposure to certain chemicals, such as benzene, has been linked to the development of leukemia.
- Cancer treatment: Any patient who has another type of cancer that has been treated with certain chemotherapy drugs are more likely to develop AML. Having radiation treatment alongside taking these drugs may further increase the risk of developing leukemia.
- Radiation: Exposure to high doses of radiation has been shown to increase the risk of developing leukemia. Small doses of radiation, such as that you would receive from an X-ray, have not been proven to increase the chance of leukemia. However, most doctors try to limit the amount of radiation someone is exposed to at one time.
- Certain blood problems: Patients with blood problems, such as polycythemia vera, essential thrombocythemia, idiopathic myelofibrosis and myelodysplastic syndrome, appear to be at a higher risk for developing certain forms of leukemia.
- Congenital symptoms: Congenital symptoms or symptoms from birth, such as Down Syndrome, Bloom Syndrome and Kostmann Syndrome, are a few of the symptoms from birth that can increase a persons chance of leukemia.
- Family history: Most cases of leukemia are not strongly linked to family history. However, having a close relative, such as a parent or sibling with leukemia may increase your risk of developing the disease. The biggest family history risk is if someone has an identical twin who developed AML before the age of one. If so, they have a very high risk of getting AML.
- Gender: AML is more likely to appear in males than females. The reasons for this are currently unknown.
What are the Symptoms Associated with Leukemia?
Mayo Clinic supplies a list of several symptoms associated with leukemia. These symptoms include the following:
- Fever or chills
- Persistent fatigue, weakness
- Frequent or severe infections
- Losing weight without trying
- Swollen lymph nodes, enlarged liver or spleen
- Easy bleeding or bruising
- Recurrent nosebleeds
- Tiny red spots in your skin
- Excessive sweating, especially at night
- Bone pain or tenderness
Many of the symptoms associated with leukemia are vague and unspecific. Some of the symptoms are easily looked over due to the fact that they may resemble symptoms of the flu or another common illness.
Is Leukemia Curable?
Yes, leukemia is curable.
How can Leukemia be Cured?
Depending on the type of leukemia, there are different treatment methods that can be taken. However the majority of leukemia patients will be treated with one of the following methods. According to The Mayo Clinic, the four most common forms of treatment for varying leukemia types are as follows.
- Common forms of leukemia treatment
- Chemotherapy: Chemo is the main from of remission induction therapy, although it can also be used for consolidation therapy. Chemo uses chemicals to kill cancer cells in your body.
- Other drug therapy: Trisenox and all-trans retinoic acid (ATRA) are anti cancer drugs that can be used by themselves or along side chemotherapy. These drugs cause leukemia cells with a specific gene mutation to stop dividing or mature and die altogether.
- Stem cell transplant: Also known as a bone marrow transplant, stem cell transplant helps to re-establish healthy stem cells by replacing unhealthy bone marrow with leukemia-free stem cells that regenerate healthy bone marrow.
- Clinical trials: These trials are highly experimental, however, they may provide you with the chance to try a new form of treatment not yet available to the public. These clinical trials do not guarantee a cure. Be sure to talk to your doctor about any clinical trials that you may be eligible for.
What Drugs/Medicines are used to Treat Leukemia?
Web MD states that the drugs that are used to treat versions of chronic and acute versions of leukemia differ:
- CML: CML treatable with the chemotherapy medicines (cyclophosphamide or cytarabine) and tyrosine kinase inhibitors (such as dasatinib, imatinib, or nilotinib).
- CLL: CLL is treatable with the chemotherapy medicines (bendamustine, chlorambucil, cyclophosphamide, fludarabine, or vincristine), corticosteroids (such as prednisone), and monoclonal antibodies (such as alemtuzumab or rituximab).
- AML: AML is treatable with the chemotherapy medicines (cytarabine, daunorubicin, idarubicin, or mitoxantrone).
- ALL: ALL is treatable with the chemotherapy medicines (asparaginase, blinatumomab, clofarabine, daunorubicin, doxorubicin, methotrexate, nelarabine, or vincristine) and corticosteroids (dexamethasone or prednisone).