Pamela Jones, MA
Leukemia is a cancer of the blood cells. In cancer, cells become abnormal and grow out of control. As the number of abnormal blood cells increase, the healthy blood cells are outnumbered. There are three main types of blood cells. Each has a distinct job:
Leukemia cells cannot do the job of normal blood cells. This causes many of the
symptoms of leukemia. The disease starts in the bone marrow where blood cells are made. The most common types of leukemia are:
Cancer occurs when cells in the body divide without control or order. Normally, cells divide in a regulated manner. If cells keep dividing uncontrollably when new cells are not needed, a mass of tissue forms, called a growth or tumor. The term cancer refers to malignant growths. These growths can invade nearby tissues. Cancer that has invaded nearby tissues can then spread to other parts of the body.
It is not clear exactly what causes these problems in the cells, but it is probably a combination of genetics and environment.
Factors that may increase your chance of leukemia include:
Leukemia may cause:
Excess leukemia cells can gather in different parts of the body and organs creating:
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. The doctor will check for swelling of the liver, spleen, or lymph nodes in the armpits, groin, and neck.
Tests may include:
If cancer cells are found, additional tests may be done. These tests check if the cancer has spread and what systems may already be affected.
The goal for acute leukemia is to destroy all signs of the disease and return the blood and bone marrow to normal. Chronic leukemia is rarely curable. Treatment focuses on slowing disease progression.
Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Options include the following:
These drugs can cause infertility and early
menopause. Talk to your doctor about your fertility options before you start treatment.
Your doctor may prescribe medications to stimulate the production of healthy blood cells.
Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. It may be given in many forms including pill, injection, and via a catheter. The drugs enter the bloodstream and travel through the body killing mostly cancer cells. Some healthy cells are killed as well. The specific combination of drugs will depend on the type of leukemia, your age, and condition.
Radiation therapy is a type of treatment that uses radiation to kill cancer cells. Typically, it is only used to prepare for a bone marrow transplant or in some cases of chronic leukemia.
The therapy uses medications or substances made by the body to improve your body’s defense against cancer. This type of treatment is still fairly new and under investigation. Talk with you doctor about whether this treatment is an option for you and about clinical trials in your area.
To help reduce your chance of leukemia:
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Leukemia & Lymphoma Society
Canadian Cancer Society
Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Canada
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http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/types/leukemia. Accessed December 12, 2014.
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http://www.lls.org/leukemia. Accessed December 12, 2014.
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A PET scan may improve leukemia care. UW HealthAvailable website. Available at:
Accessed December 12, 2014.
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http://www.dynamed.com: Fircanis S, Merriam P, Khan N, Castillo JJ. The relation between cigarette smoking and risk of acute myeloid leukemia: An updated meta-analysis of epidemiological studies. Am J Hematol. 2014;89(8):E125-E132.
Last reviewed December 2015 by Mohei Abouzied, MD
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