Everything You Need to Know About Leukemia

Leukemia is the sixth most common cancer among Malaysian adults and the most common for children. Learn more about this blood cancer here.

by Hannef Esquander

What is leukemia?

In general, cancer happens when cells in the body grow out of control and stop working the way that they are supposed to. Blood cancer or leukemia is the type of cancer that starts in blood cells. Our body continuously makes new blood cells to keep the blood healthy. The major types of blood cells are:

  • White blood cells help the body fight infections and disease.
  • Red blood cells carry oxygen from the lungs to all parts of the body. They also carry carbon dioxide back to the lungs.
  • Platelets help form blood clots and stop bleeding.

Leukemia most often starts in the white blood cells. It happens when the body produces immature white blood cells called blasts. These blood cells grow abnormally and overcrowd the bone marrow reaching a point when it will stop making normal blood cells and doing what it normally does. 

What are the causes and risk factors of leukemia?

Research has yet to determine the cause of leukemia but based on studies that have been conducted, individuals with leukemia have specific abnormal chromosomes. It is either inherited or acquired due to exposure to certain radiation and chemicals that cause cancer.  Even with the presence of these risk factors in patients, there is no certain way to pinpoint it to be the actual causative agent. 

Other factors that can increase the risk of developing leukemia include:

  • Previous cancer treatment– Individuals who have had radiation and chemotherapy to treat other cancers have greater chances of developing some forms of leukemia.
  • Exposure to certain chemicals- Individuals who have been largely exposed to benzene (found in gasoline products) and other chemicals have an increased potential developing leukemia
  • Smoking- Smoking tobaccos is known to increase the risk of developing acute myelogenous leukemia
  • Inherited genetic conditions such as Down syndrome, Klinefelter syndrome, Fanconi anemia, Bloom syndrome etc.
  • Family history of leukemia- Those with parents, siblings, and grandchildren who suffered from leukemia are more likely to develop the disease.

Diagnosing leukemia

Usually, the doctor will go through the patient’s medical history and ask about possible risk factors and symptoms before performing a comprehensive physical examination. The doctor will then look for any specific indicators of leukemia including an enlarged spleen and lymph nodes along with the diagnosis of the disease found in blood sample laboratory results.

On top of that, the doctor might also obtain a sample of bone marrow through aspiration. This is done via the insertion of a thin, long needle into the hip bone to remove a sample while the patient is under anaesthesia. Other useful tests as a part of the diagnosis include:

  • Chest X-Ray is effective in detecting enlarged lymph nodes
  • Lumbar Puncture can remove a minimal amount of cerebrospinal fluid to see if cancerous cells have invaded the spinal cord and brain
  • Imaging Tests such as MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and CT (computerised tomography) scan to determine the extent of leukemia

What are the common symptoms of leukemia?

Symptoms of leukemia vary according to types but typically include the following:

  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fever or night sweats
  • Bruising or bleeding
  • Bone and joint pain
  • Repeated infections
  • Other less frequently experienced symptoms of leukemia are:
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Back pain
  • Itchy skin
  • Numbness in hands or feet
  • Heart palpitations
  • Stomach discomfort
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sleeping problems
  • Headaches
  • Muscle pain
  • Loss of concentration
  • Weight loss

Types of leukemia

Doctors categorise leukemia based on which type of white blood cell is involved (lymphocytes or myeloid cells) and whether the illness is developing very quickly (acute disease) or slowly over time (chronic disease). According to the American Cancer Society, types of leukemia are: pertaining to early versions of lymphocytes, a type of white blood cells.

  • Acute myeloid leukemia(AML): The most common type in adults. AML is cancer that develops in early versions of any blood cells (myeloid that form RBCs, WBCs, platelets) developing in the bone marrow.
  • Chronic lymphocytic leukemia(CLL): The most common longstanding adult leukemia. This is a rapidly growing cancer of early forms of lymphocytes.
  • Chronic myelomonocytic leukemia (CMML): Mainly seen in older adults, and is characterised by excessive monocytes, a type of white blood cells.

What are the treatments for leukemia?

Treatment for the disease depends on several factors such as the type of leukemia, risk type, genetics, age group, general health and other medical issues. Many types of the disease are now highly treatable thanks to the vast improvement of leukemia treatments over the past several decades. Common treatments include the following:

  • Chemotherapy- Anticancer drugs are introduced to the body (via injection into the vein or sometimes by taking a pill) to kill and halt the production of cancer cells.
  • Stem Cell Transplant- Transferring blood stem cells from a donor and putting it into your blood; this option may not be for everyone
  • Supportive Care and Follow Up- Transfusions, antibiotics, social work and mental health support if needed
  • Clinical Trials- Access to new anti-leukemia therapies that may be added to existing chemotherapy regimens or replace them
  • Palliative Care- These include transfusions, antibiotics and treatment that maximizes the quality of life

Living with leukemia 

If you have or had leukemia, some things can be done to reduce the risk of the leukemia progressing or coming back. Lifestyle changes and healthy behaviours might help. Although there is no guarantee and no one knows for sure, these types of changes can have positive effects on your health that can extend beyond your risk of leukemia or other cancers.

  • Strengthen your body so that you can withstand some of the rigours of treatment.
  • Keep your immune system strong to aid in the fight against leukemia or related illnesses.
  • Improve your emotional outlook, so you can enjoy life to the fullest, even during treatment for leukemia.
  • Decrease the risk of other medical problems that could complicate your health.

Choose to live healthy by adopting a new lifestyle. A healthy lifestyle makes our body stronger in fighting not only cancer but also all kinds of illnesses. It is not very hard to do. Start small and work your way towards your goal. 

  • Quit smoking- Quitting will help boost your immune system to help fight leukemia and improve recovery from treatment. The body immediately begins to repair itself as soon as you drop this bad habit.
  • Reduce your risk of infection- Leukemia and its treatments reduce the body’s ability to respond to infections. This can increase the risk of infection, or increase the severity of common infections, like a cold or the flu. To lower the risk of infection while receiving leukemia treatment, practice good hygiene and avoid crowded places
  • Make dietary changes- Good diet can provide fuel to help your body function at its best, and nutrition to help tissue heal and recover. Your mood and overall energy will also improve with proper nutritional support.
  • Exercise regularly- Consult your doctor to choose a safe exercise program. Exercise has many benefits that may help you withstand the physical and emotional stresses of cancer and its treatment
  • Manage fatigue- To help avoid getting overtired, prioritise tasks and focus on the most important ones. It is important to allow others to help you with daily chores, shopping, and preparing meals. If needed, plan time throughout the day for rest.

Getting the best support system

Being diagnosed with cancer is a life-changing experience that can be hard to handle. Having to face the uncertainty of a serious disease, getting anxious about getting treatment, making lifestyle adjustments, and worrying about the unknown side effects of the treatment can be overwhelming. You should not be alone in this. Keep family, friends, and other people in your life close.

It is a tough situation that requires one to be brave.  People who allow themselves to seek help while they are recovering from cancer can often maintain better emotional balance. Other sources of support include:

  • Religious community
  • Support groups for people with a similar type of cancer
  • Professional support from trained professionals such as social workers, psychologists, and/or psychiatrists who can help support cancer patients and their families
  • Even family and caregivers are encouraged to seek support from groups or counselling geared toward them.
  • The hard truth is leukemia found in advanced stages can be harder to treat. Some people choose treatments to ease cancer complications while others choose to stop treatment completely. 

Depending on your circumstances, it may be realistic to begin end-of-life planning. Considerations may include making financial decisions, handling legal issues such as wills and insurance coverage as well as choosing hospice or home care.

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  2. What Is Leukemia? Staywell website. Available at: https://demo.staywellhealthlibrary.com/Content/healthsheets-v1/what-is-leukemia/. Updated July 1, 2020. Update Accessed June 20, 2021.
  3. Leukemia Education Package and your care needs during treatment. Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre website. Available at: https://sunnybrook.ca/content/?page=leukemia-guide-treatments. Accessed June 20, 2021.
  4. Leukemia: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment & Legal Options. Drug Law Centre website. Available at: https://www.druglawcenter.org/leukemia/. Update February 27, 2017. Accessed June 20, 2021.
  5. Blood Cancers: Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment. Yale Medicine website. Available at: https://www.yalemedicine.org/conditions/blood-cancers. Accessed June 20, 2021.
  6. Signs and symptoms of leukaemia. Leukemia Care website. Available at: https://www.leukaemiacare.org.uk/support-and-information/information-about-blood-cancer/blood-cancer-information/signs-and-symptoms-of-leukaemia/. Accessed June 20, 2021.
  7. Lifestyle Changes to Manage Leukemia. Winchester Hospital website. Available at: https://www.winchesterhospital.org/health-library/article?id=19727. Accessed June 20, 2021.
  8. Blood Cancers: Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment. Yale Medicine website. Available at: https://www.yalemedicine.org/conditions/blood-cancers. Accessed June 20, 2021.
About the Writer
Hannef Esquander
With more than a decade of experience writing about all different aspects of lifestyle; from entertainment and fashion to art and travels, Hannef now finds himself gaining interest towards health, well-being and spirituality.
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