Leukemia is a cancer that affects the bone marrow and the lymphatic system, which are the body’s blood-forming tissues. Leukemia usually involves the white blood cells, which are what your body uses to help protect itself from infection. White blood cells will normally grow and divide as your body needs them, but leukemia causes your bone marrow to produce abnormal white blood cells that don’t function as they should.
Symptoms of Leukemia
There are many different types of leukemia, with some that are more common in adults and others that mainly affect children. The exact symptoms will vary depending on which type of leukemia you are dealing with. However, there are some common symptoms that tend to be consistent with most types of the disease. These include:
- Fatigue and weakness
- Excessive, unexplainable weight loss
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Enlarged spleen or liver
- Petechiae (tiny red spots on your skin)
- Bone tenderness and pain
- Fever or chills
- Infections that are frequent or severe
- Bleeding and bruising easily
- Recurrent nosebleeds
- Excessive night sweating
It is easy to overlook many of these symptoms because they can be consistent with other illnesses, such as the flu. However, if you are experiencing many of these symptoms over an extended period of time, make an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible.
Causes of Leukemia
The exact causes of leukemia are not yet determined, but scientists believe that it forms as a result of certain genetic and environmental factors. Factors that may increase your risk for developing leukemia include:
- Genetic disorders: Since genetic abnormalities are involved in the development of leukemia, there are certain genetic disorders that will increase your risk. One example of this would be Down syndrome.
- Smoking: Smokers will have an increased risk of developing certain types of leukemia, such as acute myelogenous leukemia.
- Family history: If you have family members who have been diagnosed with leukemia, especially immediate family, then you will be at an increased risk for developing the disease as well.
- Exposure to certain chemicals: Some chemicals, such as benzene (found in gasoline), are linked to certain types of leukemia.
- Previous cancer treatment: If you’ve received chemotherapy or radiation as part of your treatment for another type of cancer, you will be at an increased risk for developing other cancers, including leukemia, in the future.
Treatments for Leukemia
The specific treatment that will work best for you will be determined by your doctor based on what type of leukemia you have, how much it has spread, your age, and overall health. The most common treatments for leukemia include:
- Chemotherapy: This is the most common type of treatment for leukemia. Chemotherapy works by using chemicals to kill leukemia cells.
- Radiation therapy: This type of therapy works by using high-energy X-rays to damage leukemia cells and stop their growth. Radiation can be targeted to one specific area, or it can be used on your entire body.
- Targeted therapy: There are some drugs that are able to target only cancerous cells and attack them based on their vulnerabilities.
- Biological therapy: This type of therapy works by boosting your immune system in order to make it more effective at attacking leukemia cells.
- Stem cell transplants: This is a procedure that will replace your diseased bone marrow with healthy bone marrow. The treatment may use your own healthy stem cells that were harvested before treatment began or donor cells.