Leukemia

WHAT IS LEUKEMIA?

The word leukemia is not much heard. But we all know the much feared disease called blood cancer. Leukemia is the cancer of blood or the bone marrow. It can be explained as the multiple production of blood cells and most of the cases, it is the white blood cells that’s produced in excess.

Blood is composed of different types of cells, each performing a specific function for circulation and immunity. Red blood cells facilitate the transport of oxygen from the lungs, heart, and to all other body organs. White blood cells perform functions in immunity, helping rid the body of harmful substances and pathogenic organisms. Cells have a specified lifespan and are programmed by the body to die when they have lost their function. In return, the body regenerates new cells to maintain its healthy state.

In some instances however, blood cells that are produced by the bone marrow are abnormal. Leukemia is characterized by abnormal levels of the white blood cells or leukocytes; this in turn compromises the normal ability of the blood to do its job. Due to the increased production of white blood cells, this disease creates damage to the bone marrow by removing the original bone marrow cells and replacing them with the large number of white blood cells. This change creates a lack of elements required for the clotting of blood. This leads the blood cancer patients to develop pin prick bleeds or bleed excessively. The white blood cells which are responsible for the immune system will now be non functional and this causes the cancer to affect the other organs.

The American Cancer Association presents data that estimates about 44,000 new cases of leukemia for the year 2007. Figures also suggest that approximately 21,000 deaths will be caused by leukemia per year. This type of cancer often occurs more often in men than women. Also, people with genetic abnormalities or Down syndrome may be possible candidates for leukemia.

TYPES OF LEUKEMIA

Leukaemia can be classified into four types, the most common of which are chronic lymphocytic leukemia and acute myeloid leukaemia. The other classifications are acute lymphocyctic leukaemia and chronic myeloid leukaemia. Leukemia is a general term explaining this kind of cancer. Leukemia can be divided in to acute and chronic leukemia.

Acute leukemia is found in children and young adults where the excessive production of the immature blood cells disables the bone marrow to produce any healthy blood cells. Due to the rapid spreading and the accumulation of the impaired cells, acute leukemia spreads easily through the blood streams to other organs. This necessitates an immediate attention to this disease.

While on the other hand the chronic leukemia is due to the excessive production of matured but abnormal blood cells. This means that it will take some months to about two years for the disease to progress. Contrary to acute leukemia this is found in older people, but theoretically it can be found in any age group. The therapy for this can be delayed unlike the other form where immediate attention is required.

CAUSES AND TREATMENTS

There are no specific risk factors for leukemia. Different types of leukemia have their causes. However, induction of some kind of chemicals, smoking cigarettes, viral infections, and ionizing radiation exposure can be contributive to leukaemia. There are occupational hazards such as exposure to harmful chemicals that can be causes of leukaemia, or possibly put persons at risk. Some of the chemicals described by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are formaldehyde and benzene. Long-term exposure to these can lead to leukaemia. It is said that the disease is not easy to diagnose early, and can only be truly determined through a bone marrow biopsy or blood test. Genetic predispositions can also be a cause of leukemia.

Symptoms

After discussing the causes, how does one know if he or a loved one has leukaemia? There are several symptoms as explained by the CDC. Most of the initial symptoms of leukemia constitute weakness and fatigue, night sweat, swollen or bleeding gums and specific bone pains. Some patients can have swollen tonsils, neurological symptoms and joint pains. If one gets frequent infections, bruises easily, and is feverish regularly, he may have leukaemia, Aside from those, sudden weight loss and swollen lymph nodes are tell-tale signs of the condition.

Treatment:

Leukemia can be found from a regular blood check up where the white blood cell count will be in excess, but in rare cases the blood count will be normal and this case is referred to as the aleukemia.

Like the other forms of cancer leukemia is also caused by the mutation of DNA which in turn changes the regulation of cell division. This mutation can be caused due to genetic factors or the radiation hazards. The scope of treatment includes the controlling of the bone marrow and the excessive cell production. Like in other forms of cancer, chemotherapy with drugs taken intravenously can be done to alleviate the condition. Imatinib, dasatinib, nilotinib, daunorubicin and thioguanine are drugs that have been proven effective for leukaemia chemotherapy. This should be supported with giving nutrients and oral antibiotics. Blood transfusion, antibiotics, and possibly bone marrow transplant are other avenues for treating the cancer. Some costly treatments include stem cell replacement. These people require isolation in hospital for some days. At present, more research efforts are being conducted to find newer drugs and treatment procedures for leukaemia, and all other forms of cancer. This may result in effective and cost efficient treatment methods in the future.
 

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