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Leukemia

Definition

Leukemia is a cancer of the blood cells. In cancer, cells become abnormal and grow out of control. As the number of abnormal blood cells increase, the healthy blood cells are outnumbered. There are three main types of blood cells. Each has a distinct job:

  • White blood cells (WBC), also called lymphocytes, are most often involved in leukemia. Their main job is to help the immune system.
  • Red blood cells (RBC) carry oxygen throughout the body.
  • Platelets help the blood clot at injury sites.

Leukemia cells cannot do the job of normal blood cells. This causes many of the symptoms of leukemia. The disease starts in the bone marrow where blood cells are made. The most common types of leukemia are:

  • Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL)
  • Acute myelogenous leukemia (AML)
  • Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)
  • Chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML)
Immune system white blood cell
White Blood Cells
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Risk

Tell your doctor if you have any of these risk factors:

  • Age—leukemia is most common in people over aged 60
    • AML and CLL are most common in adults
    • ALL is most common in children
  • Chemotherapy for previous cancer
  • Some genetic diseases such as Down syndrome
  • Chronic exposure to benzene that exceeds federally approved safety limits
  • Radiation therapy from previous therapy
  • Myelodysplastic syndrome—a blood disease; increases risk for AML
  • Exposure to tobacco smoke

Symptoms

Tell your doctor if you have any of these:

  • Fever or night sweats
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Minor cuts that heal slowly
  • Excessive reaction to insect bites
  • Feeling weak or tired
  • Headache
  • Pale skin
  • Bleeding and bruising easily
  • Nosebleeds
  • Bleeding gums
  • Tiny red spots under the skin

Excess leukemia cells can gather in different parts of the body and organs creating:

  • Pain in the bones or joints
  • Puffy gums
  • Rash
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Swelling of testicles
  • Swelling or discomfort in the abdomen (from enlarged spleen)
  • Swollen lymph nodes (particularly in neck or armpit)
  • Weight loss
  • Meningitis with headache, nausea, loss of muscle control, seizures, symptoms of stroke

Diagnosis

The doctor will check for swelling of the liver, spleen, or lymph nodes in the armpits, groin, and neck.

Tests may include the following:

  • Blood tests
  • Bone marrow aspiration and biopsy

These tests check if the cancer has spread and what systems may already be affected.

  • Lumbar puncture
  • Chest x-rays
  • CT scan
  • MRI scan
  • Ultrasound
  • Positron emission tomography (PET)

Treatment

Options include the following:

  • Medication
    • Imatinib mesylate (Gleevec)
    • Nilotinib
    • Dasatinib
    • Filgrastim (Neupogen)
    • Pegfilgrastim (Neulasta)
    • Epoetin alpha (Procrit, Epogen)
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation Therapy
  • Procedures
    • Blood transfusions
    • Bone marrow transplant
    • Splenectomy
  • Biological Therapy (Immunotherapy)

Prevention

To help reduce your chance of getting leukemia, take the following steps:

  • Avoid exposure to benzene.
  • Avoid exposure to high levels of radiation when possible.
  • If you smoke, quit.

 

Content was created using EBSCO’s Health Library. Edits to original content made by Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice.

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