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Leukemia  

Leukemia is a type of cancer which affects the blood.  There are many types of this disease but they all affect the kinds of tissue which affect production of the blood such as the bone marrow and the lymphatic system.  The disease also tends to stimulate overproduction of abnormal white blood cells.  The most serious form of leukemia called myelogenous leukemia has the highest mortality with 41,714 deaths in the US between 2003 and 2007.  

In 2010, over 22,000 people died from this disease.   The National Cancer Institute has estimated that 47,150 new cases and 23,540 deaths from Leukemia have been reported in the United States in 2012. We will explore some of the causes, symptoms and treatments associated with this disease.  

The key mechanism at work with leukemia is overproduction of deformed white blood cells.  Normally white blood cells are primarily responsible for fighting infection.  But in the case of leukemia, an overproduction of white blood cells is a large problem because they don’t function like normal white blood cells and fight infection.  In addition they tend to keep growing and eventually crowd out the other beneficial blood cells. 

Since leukemia is carried in the blood, it can affect other organs, particularly the lymph nodes.  Leukemia can be acute or chronic.  If you have acute leukemia, the symptoms intensify quickly and you feel sick early on.  If you have chronic leukemia, the disease progresses more slowly and the symptoms may not appear for years. 

In addition leukemia can be manifested as either lymphocytic or myelogenous.  In the first case, the white blood cells called lymphocytes are directly affected by the disease.  And in myelogenous leukemia, white blood cells called myelocytes are affected. 

There are four main types of leukemia which include the following: following:

  • Acute lymphoblastic leukemia – Common type in adults 
  •  Acute myelogenous leukemia – Also a common type in adults 
  •  Chronic lymphocytic leukemia – A common type of leukemia which tends to affect children
  •  Chronic myelogenous leukemia – Also tends to affect children predominantly 

While the exact cause of leukemia is unknown, there are a number of factors which can influence the chances of developing the disease.  For example if you were exposed to a large amount of radiation, this can have a significant impact.  In addition exposure to certain toxic chemicals such as benzene plays an important role.  Sometimes patients who have undergone chemotherapy for another type of cancer are at risk for developing leukemia.  And those with genetic disorders like Downs syndrome are at risk for the disease. 

The symptoms for leukemia can vary depending on the type of leukemia involved.  However they can include fevers and night sweats; persistent headaches; a tendency to bruise or bleed easily; joint pain; swollen belly or a painful belly from an enlarged spleen, swollen lymph nodes, and a tendency to suffer from many kinds of infections. 

Blood tests are the most common way to confirm if you have leukemia and what type is involved.  If you are suffering from acute leukemia, it is important to halt the growth of the affected cells.  In many cases the treatment can cause the disease to go into remission where the affected cells gets destroyed and do not grow back.  However it is not quite a cure because the cells can reappear at any time later on. 

Chronic leukemia is very difficult to cure but it can be controlled.   

A common treatment option for leukemia is chemotherapy.  Radiation therapy may be a good option before receiving a stem cell implant to restart the production of healthy white blood cells.