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Home >> Specialities >> Blood & Marrow Transplantation >> Leukemias: Types, Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Leukemias: Types, Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Leukemia is a group of blood cancers that affect the bone marrow, blood, and lymphatic system. It originates in the cells that produce blood, leading to an overproduction of abnormal white blood cells. Leukemia can be acute or chronic and is classified into various subtypes, each with its unique characteristics.
Types of Leukemia
Leukemia is primarily categorized into four main types:

  • Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL): ALL is the most common type of leukemia in children but can also affect adults. It originates in immature lymphoblasts, a type of white blood cell, and progresses rapidly.
  • Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL): CLL is typically diagnosed in older adults. It involves the overproduction of mature but abnormal lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell, and progresses slowly.
  • Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML): AML is a rapidly progressing leukemia that affects both children and adults. It originates in immature myeloid cells, which should develop into red blood cells, platelets, and white blood cells.
  • Chronic Myeloid Leukemia (CML): CML predominantly affects adults. It begins in the myeloid cells and progresses more slowly than AML.

Causes and Risk Factors
The exact cause of leukemia is not always clear, but several risk factors have been identified:

  • Genetic Factors: Some genetic mutations and family history of leukemia may increase the risk of developing the disease.
  • Radiation Exposure: High levels of radiation, such as exposure to nuclear accidents or medical treatments like radiation therapy, can increase the risk of leukemia.
  • Chemical Exposure: Exposure to certain chemicals, such as benzene and formaldehyde, has been linked to an increased risk of leukemia.
  • Blood Disorders: Individuals with certain blood disorders, such as myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS), have a higher risk of developing AML.
  • Previous Cancer Treatments: Previous cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy, can increase the risk of secondary leukemia.

Symptoms of Leukemia
Leukemia symptoms can vary depending on the type and stage of the disease but often include:

  • Fatigue: Unexplained and persistent tiredness.
  • Frequent Infections: Weakened immune system leading to frequent infections.
  • Unexplained Weight Loss: Significant weight loss without diet or lifestyle changes.
  • Pale Skin: Anaemia-related paleness.
  • Bruising or Bleeding: Easy bruising, nosebleeds, or prolonged bleeding from minor injuries.
  • Enlarged Lymph Nodes: Swollen lymph nodes in the neck, armpits, or groin.
  • Abdominal Discomfort: Enlarged spleen or liver leading to abdominal discomfort or fullness.
  • Fever or Night Sweats: Unexplained fever or night sweats.
  • Bone Pain: Bone and joint pain.

Diagnosing leukemia typically involves a combination of the following tests and procedures:

  • Complete Blood Count (CBC): Measures the number of blood cells, including white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets.
  • Blood Smear: A microscope examination of a blood sample to check for abnormal cells.
  • Bone Marrow Aspiration and Biopsy: A small sample of bone marrow is collected and examined for leukemia cells.
  • Cytogenetic Analysis: Detects specific genetic abnormalities in leukemia cells.
  • Flow Cytometry: Identifies the type of leukemia and the stage of cell development.

Treatment Options
The treatment approach for leukemia depends on several factors, including the type, stage, and the patient's overall health. Common treatment options include:

  • Chemotherapy: The use of powerful drugs to kill cancer cells or stop their growth.
  • Radiation Therapy: High-energy radiation beams are used to target and destroy leukemia cells.
  • Stem Cell Transplant: Healthy stem cells are transplanted to replace damaged bone marrow and promote healthy blood cell production.
  • Targeted Therapy: Medications specifically designed to target and inhibit leukemia cells' growth and division.
  • Immunotherapy: Boosts the body's immune system to fight leukemia cells.
  • Clinical Trials: Participation in clinical trials to test new treatments and therapies.
  • Supportive Care: Managing symptoms and side effects, such as anaemia or infection.

Leukemia prognosis varies widely based on factors like the type, stage at diagnosis, and overall health of the patient. Advances in treatment have improved survival rates, and many individuals with leukemia can achieve remission or even be cured. However, ongoing medical monitoring and follow-up care are crucial for long-term management and to address any potential complications or relapse.

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