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Posted Mar 22 2010 12:00am

          Leukemia is a rather complex form of cancer.  The term refers to cancers of the white blood cells, which are also called leukocytes or WBCs.  The disorder actually starts in the tissue that forms the blood.  To understand the cancer disease more thoroughly, it helps to know that normal blood cells develop from cells in the bone marrow called stem cells.  Bone marrow is the soft material located in the center of most bones.  Stem cells mature into different kinds of blood cells, and each one has a specific purpose.  White blood cells help fight infection in our bodies.  Red blood cells carry oxygen to tissues throughout the body.  Platelets help form blood clots that control bleeding.

          Leukemia develops when the marrow produces far too many white blood cells and what is produced is abnormal.  It is actually considered a cancer of the bone marrow and blood.  This particular cancer can develop at any age, although it is most common in people over the age of 60.  According to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, close to 250,000 people in the United States suffer from the disorder.  The types of leukemia are grouped on how quickly the disease develops and gets worse.  Leukemia is either acute (gets worse quickly) or chronic (gets worse slowly).

          There are four common types of leukemia within the acute and chronic groups:

  • Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL): CLL affects lymphoid cells and usually grows slowly.  It accounts for more than 15,000 new cases of leukemia each year.  Most often, people diagnosed with the disease are over age 55.  It almost never affects children.
  • Chronic myeloid leukemia (CML): CML affects myeloid cells and usually grows slowly at first.  It accounts for nearly 5,000 new cases of leukemia each year.  It mainly affects adults.
  • Acute lymphocytic (lymphoblastic) leukemia (ALL): ALL affects lymphoid cells and grows quickly.  It accounts for more than 5,000 new cases of leukemia each year.  ALL is the most common type of leukemia in young children.  It also affects adults.
  • Acute myeloid leukemia (AML): AML affects myeloid cells and grows quickly.  It accounts for more than 13,000 new cases of leukemia each year.  It occurs in both adults and children.

In chronic leukemia, early in the disease, the leukemia cells can still do some of the work of normal white blood cells.  People may not have any symptoms at first.  Doctors often find chronic leukemia during a routine checkup.  Slowly, chronic leukemia gets worse and as the number of leukemia cells in the blood increases, people get symptoms.  I have a very good friend that was diagnosed with a chronic form of leukemia two years ago and she went to the famous MD Anderson Center in Houston, Tx.  Luckily, she has not had any problems, and they are taking the ‘wait and watch’ approach at this point.  However, in the acute form, leukemia cells cannot do any of the work of normal white blood cells.  The number of leukemia cells increases rapidly and the disease usually worsens quickly. 

          Symptoms of leukemia vary because the leukemia cells travel throughout the body.  In other words, it depends on where these cells collect in the body.  People with the acute form go to the doctor because they feel sick.  If the brain is affected, they could have headaches, vomiting, confusion, loss of muscle control or seizures.  Leukemia can also affect other parts of the body such as the digestive tract, kidneys, heart, lungs or testes.  Common symptoms of both acute and chronic leukemia can include: swollen lymph nodes, fever, night sweats, frequent infections, feeling weak or tired, bleeding and bruising easily (bleeding gums, purplish patches in the skin or tiny red spots under the skin), swelling or discomfort in the abdomen (from a swollen spleen or liver), weight loss for no known reason and pain in the bones or joints.  These symptoms are usually not due to the cancer, rather an infection or other health problems.

          People with leukemia, or cancer of the white blood cells, have several options for treatment.  These include waiting and watching, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, biological therapy and stem cell transplant.  The choice really depends on what type of leukemia is involved, your age, if the cells are in your cerebral spinal fluid, your symptoms and general health.  However, persons with acute leukemia need to be treated right away.  The goal of treatment is to destroy signs of leukemia in the body and make the symptoms go away.  When achieved, this is called a remission.  After people go into remission, more therapy may be given to prevent a relapse.  This type of therapy is called consolidation therapy or maintenance therapy.

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