Leukemia

Learning about leukemia

Leukemia is cancer of the blood. There are four different types of leukemia, but all four types begin in the same place: in a cell of the bone marrow. The cell undergoes a leukemic change that allows it to multiply and grow much faster than normal cells. Eventually, the rapid-growth cells begin to outnumber the normal red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. The rate at which this progression occurs depends on the type of leukemia.

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The four types of leukemia

Acute Leukemia

Acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) and acute lymphocytic leukemia are caused by a single acute leukemia cell that multiplies to form about a trillion more leukemia cells. These cells are described as "nonfunctional" because they don't work like normal blood cells. Over time, they begin to crowd and outnumber normal bone marrow cells, resulting in a low red-blood-cell count, referred to as anemia.

Chronic Leukemia

With chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), the leukemia cell that causes the disease produces blood cells that function almost like normal cells. The number of red blood cells is typically less than normal, allowing the white blood cells to continue to grow and to take over. When untreated, this can lead to severe anemia and may cause the blood to slow.

With chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), the leukemia cell that causes the disease makes too many nonfunctioning lymphocytes. These cells begin to replace the normal cells in the bone marrow, ultimately weakening the immune response. They also crowd out the normal red blood cells, leading to anemia. Unlike those with the other three types, people with CLL may remain in good health for a long time, as the disease progresses slowly.

Signs and symptoms

The symptoms of leukemia can be similar to those for other, less severe conditions. Thus, blood tests and bone marrow tests are needed for a diagnosis. The types of symptoms depend on the type of leukemia. For acute leukemia, the signs may be:

For chronic leukemia, there may be no symptoms. Patients usually find out they have chronic leukemia after taking a blood test. Symptoms will then develop slowly over time.

Treatment

The best treatment option will depend on the type of leukemia. However, no matter the type, it's important to get medical care by doctors experienced in treating leukemia patients. The goal of treatment is to accomplish complete remission.

Acute leukemia patients need to start treatment right away. Treatment may involve chemotherapy and induction therapy. After remission, consolidation therapy is needed. This may include chemotherapy or a bone marrow transplant.

Chronic leukemia patients start treatment once they are diagnosed. Medication is often prescribed. Chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant may also occur.