Leukemia: Cancer That Affects the Blood
Leukemia is different than most other cancers because it doesn’t grow in one part of the body. Instead, it affects the blood that flows through your body, and it starts where your body makes your blood. These places include your bone marrow and your lymph glands.
Leukemia comes in several types. Most of these affect the white blood cells, which usually fight infections in your body. With leukemia, abnormal cells are made, and these abnormal cells don’t work the way they should. Here are the main kinds of leukemia:
- Acute myeloid leukemia is the most common type of acute leukemia and it grows quickly. It begins in the blood and bone marrow when the body makes blood cells that don’t fully mature. These abnormal cells are unable to stop infections.
- Chronic myeloid leukemia is similar to the acute form but grows more slowly. However, at times, this type can grow rapidly and spread throughout the body.
- Acute lymphocytic leukemia is most common in children under the age of 15. It happens when healthy white blood cells are replaced by abnormal ones.
- Chronic lymphocytic leukemia is another slow-growing cancer. It can sometimes take years to experience symptoms.
Many people have some leukemia risk
Did you know that tens of millions of Americans still smoke? The number has come down, but that’s a lot of smokers. This is important because smokers have an increased risk of leukemia. Other people can get leukemia too, including:
- People who’ve had certain types of chemotherapy and radiation therapy for other cancers
- Those with some genetic disorders such as Down syndrome
- People who’ve been exposed to certain chemicals, such as benzene
Diagnosis and screening
Leukemia is a dangerous disease and it helps to find it as early as possible. Doctors can sometimes see a problem in a regular blood test, even before a patient has symptoms. That’s a good reason to get a physical exam every year.
Major symptoms of leukemia
Leukemia can have many symptoms, ranging from nausea, fever and chills to flu-like symptoms and weight loss. However, there are a few major symptoms, including:
- Bleeding easily – When abnormal white blood cells are formed, blood doesn’t clot the way it should. Leukemia patients can bruise or bleed easily and heal slowly.
- Weakened immune system – Our white blood cells fight off infection, but leukemia keeps them from working properly. Leukemia patients can get frequent infections. Also, their immune systems sometimes attack healthy parts of the body.
- Anemia – When our blood is weakened by leukemia, the number of healthy red blood cells is reduced. This condition can keep your body from getting enough oxygen.
Leukemia is not “staged” like most cancer
In many cases leukemia has already spread in the body when it’s diagnosed. For that reason, it’s not broken into stages like most other kinds of cancer. Doctors use other ways of measuring the disease’s progression, and those measures vary from one type of leukemia to another. Factors that measure a leukemia patient’s health include:
- White blood cell or platelet count
- History of prior blood disorders
- Gene abnormalities
- Bone damage
- Enlarged liver or spleen
Planning your treatment
If you learn that you have leukemia, make sure you talk with your doctor about the right treatment. Your doctor — or, even better, a team of doctors — will help you form a cancer treatment plan. The plan can make use of the following treatments, separately or together:
- Weakening the cancer with anticancer drugs (this is called “chemotherapy”)
- Helping your immune system attack leukemia cells (this is called “biological therapy”)
- Using drugs that target the cancer cells directly
- Bombarding the cancer with high-energy radiation
- Placing stem cells in your bone marrow to help your marrow to work properly
Coping and support
Leukemia can be hard to treat and it affects the body in many ways. So whether you or your loved one has the disease, you’ll need to find ways to cope. Here are some things you can do:
- Learn about leukemia – Ask your doctors about the disease. Learn as much as you can, especially about your treatment. With any cancer, it’s important to get all the treatment you need.
- Rely on your family and friends – Everyone needs help dealing with a cancer like leukemia. Family and friends can help in many ways, from helping with housework to going shopping or dealing with the healthcare system.
- Talk with your doctor – Your doctor can also help. Ask about support groups in your area and get information about your treatments.
- Connect with outside groups – Get in touch with cancer organizations such as the American Cancer Society or the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. These groups can help in many ways.
Regional Cancer Care Associates — Cancer care you can trust
Regional Cancer Care Associates (RCCA) works with you to help you win your battle with cancer. We strive every day to provide the highest-quality, most comprehensive and advanced treatment. At RCCA, your care is close to home — yet you’ll be diagnosed and treated by experts at one of the nation’s largest cancer care networks. We work with every patient, individually, to make sure your care is second to none.