Leukemia, commonly known as blood cancer, is a form of cancer that starts in the stem cells of the bone marrow. Bone marrow is the soft material in the centre of bones where blood cells - including red and white blood cells and platelets - are made. Leukemia occurs when bone marrow cells multiply abnormally. This causes the healthy cells to be crowded out, which interferes with normal production and function.
There is no single cause for leukemia. There are some risk factors however, that might increase one's risk of developing leukemia:
- Advanced age (although we often associate leukemia with children, most cases occur in adults)
- Previous chemotherapy or radiation therapy
- Exposure to certain chemical substances
- Certain genetic disorders (Down syndrome, patients who are Philadelphia chromosome-positive, etc.)
Types of leukemia
There are 4 different types of leukemia. They are grouped according to how quickly they progress and the type of cell affected. When it comes to chronic leukemia, disease progression is slow and there may be no symptoms: it is often diagnosed during routine examinations. As for acute leukemia, symptoms develop very suddenly and resemble flu-like symptoms that persist and worsen.
The 4 types of leukemia:
- Acute lymphoblastic leukemia
- Chronic lymphocytic leukemia
- Acute myeloblastic leukemia
- Chronic myelogenous leukemia
Symptoms appear then intensify based on the number of abnormal cells being produced. They vary depending on the specific type of leukemia:
- Head or throat pain
- Stomach or intestinal pain
- Bone or joint pain
- Swollen lymph nodes
- General discomfort
- Unexplained weight loss
- Unusual bleeding and unexplained bruising
- Night sweats
Having these symptoms does not necessarily mean that you have cancer. You should however, see your doctor.
Before a diagnosis can be made, several examinations and tests have to be performed. These include a thorough physical exam and blood tests, various imaging studies (scan, magnetic resonance, etc.) and a spinal tap.
Treatment varies and is based on the type of leukemia. It may consist of one or several of the following treatments:
- Biological therapy
- Radiation therapy
- Bone marrow transplant
Unfortunately, nothing specific can be done to prevent leukemia. However, living a healthy lifestyle can help reduce one's risk of developing cancer:
- Eat healthy
- Avoid alcohol and tobacco
- Exercise regularly
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Avoid the use of pesticides and hazardous products at home and in the workplace
For more information or for support:
Canadian Cancer Society
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The patient information leaflets are provided by Vigilance Santé Inc. This content is for information purposes only and does not in any manner whatsoever replace the opinion or advice of your health care professional. Always consult a health care professional before making a decision about your medication or treatment.