Overview – What is it?
Leukaemia is a type of cancer that affects the blood forming tissues. It occurs when abnormal blood cells are produced in the bone marrow. It also involves production of abnormal white blood cells which are responsible for fighting infections. The risk factors for this cancer include a past history with cancer, genetic disorders and smoking. Some of the symptoms for leukaemia cancer are having recurrent nosebleeds, excessive sweating and having swollen lymph nodes.
Physical examination, blood tests and bone marrow tests are some of the ways to diagnose leukaemia. The treatment for this cancer includes chemotherapy, target therapy and bone marrow transplant depending on the stage and age of the patient. This cancer can be prevented through reducing its risk factors by not smoking and getting regular screening, among other measures.
Causes – What causes it?
There is no exact known cause for leukaemia, however, there are several risk factors to watch out for that could increase leukaemia cancer incidence. These include:
- Family history: Having a close family member who has had leukaemia in the past could increase the risk of getting the disease.
- Personal history: If you have had other cancers before, this could also increase your risk of getting leukaemia.
- Exposure to radiation: Being exposed to radiation, especially during other cancer treatments, can increase leukaemia cancer risk. Chemotherapy treatment can also lead to an increased risk for this cancer.
- Exposure to certain chemicals: Getting exposed to some chemicals such as benzene increases the risk of developing leukaemia.
- Certain genetic conditions: Genetic conditions such as down syndrome and blood disorders like myelodysplastic syndrome increase the risk of leukaemia.
Symptoms – What do you feel?
The symptoms for leukaemia cancer depend on the type of leukaemia that one is suffering from. The 4 main types of leukaemia cancer are:
- Acute leukaemia: This occurs when abnormal blood cells multiply rapidly and are unable to carry out their normal functions. This cancer is most common in children.
- Chronic leukaemia: This is similar to acute leukaemia but involves more mature blood cells which replicate more slowly and can function normally for a period of time. It occurs mostly in adults above 55 years and can go unnoticed for a while because this type of leukaemia may not show early symptoms.
- Lymphocytic leukaemia: This affects the lymphoid cells (lymphocytes) which form lymphatic tissue that make up the body’s immune system.
- Myelogenous leukaemia: This type of leukaemia affects the myeloid cells which produce red and white blood cells as well as platelets.
Symptoms for this cancer include:
- Excessive sweating
- Frequent or severe infections
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Bone or joint pain
- Frequent fatigue
- Unintentional loss of weight
- Easy bleeding or bruising
- Red spots on the skin
- Recurrent nosebleeds
- Pain in the abdomen due to enlargement of the spleen or liver
Diagnosis – How do you diagnose it?
Several tests can be done to diagnose leukaemia. These are:
- Physical exam: This is done to check for physical signs of leukaemia such as swollen lymph nodes and pale skin due to anaemia.
- Blood tests: To check whether there are abnormal levels of red and white blood cells or platelets in the blood.
- Bone marrow biopsy: A sample of bone marrow is taken from the hipbone and checked in a lab for any leukaemia cells.
Other tests that can be done are:
- Chest x-ray to check whether the lymph nodes are enlarged.
- Lumbar puncture to determine whether leukaemia has spread to the brain and spinal cord.
- Other imaging tests such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computerised tomography (CT) scans which show more detailed images of the body’s inner organs to determine the severity of the disease.
Treatment – How do you treat it?
The treatment depends on the type of leukaemia, the extent of the disease, and the health state and age of an individual. The treatment options are as follows:
- Bone marrow/stem cell transplant: This is a procedure done to replace the bone marrow that has been affected by the cancer with healthy bone marrow that can be harvested from your own stem cells or from a donor. Before this procedure is done, high doses of chemotherapy and radiation are given to destroy the affected bone marrow.
- Chemotherapy: Using a combination of anti-cancer drugs to kill the cancer cells.
- Radiation therapy: This is done to destroy or kill cancer cells and stop them from growing by using high-energy beams.
- Targeted therapy: Using drugs to attack specific cancer cells without causing damage to normal cells.
- Immunotherapy: This treatment option is also known as biological therapy and it uses drugs to boost the body’s immune system, recognise the presence of cancer cells in the body and attack them.
Prevention – How do you prevent it?
There is no known cause for this cancer, but it may be prevented by reducing some of the risk factors by:
- Not smoking
- Avoiding exposure to chemicals that can lead to increased risk of leukaemia such as benzene
- Avoiding exposure to radiation in the workplace
- Getting regular screening for leukaemia especially if you are at a high risk of developing these cancers
- Eating healthy by having more fruits and vegetables