Leukemia – The "White Blood" Disease

Introduction

Leukemia or leukaemia meaning white blood (Greek leukos, “white”; aima, “blood”) is a cancer of the blood or bone marrow and is characterized by an abnormal growth of blood cells, usually white blood cells (leukocytes)and is split into its acute and chronic forms. It can affect the digestive tract, kidneys, lungs, or other parts of the body and can also collect in the testicles causing swelling. Leukemia is one of the most common cancers of children, But isn’t just a children’s disease, as many think. It is newly diagnosed in about 29,000 adults and 2000 children each year in the United States and has four main types and many sub-types of which only some of them are common among children. Leukemia that has spread to the brain may produce central nervous system effects, such as headaches, seizures, weakness, blurred vision, balance difficulties, or vomiting and the disease, or the chemotherapy used to treat it, can cause anemia.

Acute Leukemia

Acute leukemia is characterized by the rapid increase of immature blood cells, and is a potentially curable disease; However only a small number of patients are cured with current therapy. It begins with one or a few white blood cells that have a lost or damaged DNA sequence and gets worse very fast and may make you feel sick right away. It tends to develop suddenly, whereas some chronic varieties may exist for years before they are even diagnosed. Immediate treatment is required due to the rapid progression and accumulation of the malignant cells, which then spill over into the bloodstream and spread to other organs of the body. Whereas acute leukemia must be treated immediately, chronic forms are sometimes monitored for some time before treatment to ensure maximum effectiveness of therapy.

Chronic Leukemia

Chronic leukemia is distinguished by the excessive build up of relatively mature, but still abnormal, blood cells and often goes undetected for many years until it is identified in a routine blood test. It is more common between ages 40 and 70 and is rare among young people. It tends to gets worse slowly and may not cause symptoms for years. Like many other cancers, it is a disease of old age. Doctors often find chronic leukemia during a routine checkup, before there are any noticeable symptoms. In adults, the acute forms occur in those of all ages, whereas the chronic varieties tend to occur in people older than 40 years. Although slow-growing chronic leukemia may also be seen in children, it is very rare, accounting for fewer than 50 cases in children each year in the United States.

Treatment

Treatment of leukemia is complex and it depends on your age and health, the type and how far it has spread. Treatment is generally considered necessary when the patient shows signs and symptoms such as low blood cell counts. In general, ALL treatment is divided into several phases. In children, an intensive 6-month treatment program is needed after induction, followed by 2 years of maintenance chemotherapy. For children with low-risk, standard therapy usually consists of three drugs (prednisone, L-asparaginase, and vincristine) for the first month of treatment. High-risk patients receive higher drug doses plus treatment with extra chemotherapeutic agents. Follow-up therapy for ALL patients usually consists of: supportive care, such as intravenous nutrition and treatment with oral antibiotics.

In general, the indications for treatment are: falling hemoglobin or platelet count, progression to a later stage of disease, painful, disease-related overgrowth of lymph nodes or spleen, lymphocyte doubling time (an indicator of lymphocyte reproduction) of fewer than 12 months. Overall, the strategy is to control bone marrow and systemic (whole-body) disease while offering specific treatment for the central nervous system (CNS), if necessary. Consolidation or “maintenance” treatments may be given to prevent disease recurrence once remission has been achieved. Whatever the plan, it is important for the patient to understand the treatment that is being given and the reasons behind the choice.

Conclusion

Leukemia is a cancer of blood-forming cells in the bone marrow. These cells crowd out other types of blood cells produced by the bone marrow, including red blood cells, which carry oxygen to tissues throughout your body, and platelets, which help form blood clots. Leukemia cells can spread to the lymph nodes or other organs causing swelling and/or pain and can also collect in the kidney, liver and spleen, causing enlargement of these organs. They also can affect the lungs and other parts of the body. Acute forms can occur in children and young adults. Chronic forms mostly occurs in older people, but can theoretically occur in any age group.

There is no single known cause for all of the different types of leukemia. Studies have linked exposure to petrochemicals, such as benzene, and hair dyes to the development of some forms. Viruses have been linked to other forms. Until the cause or causes are found, there is no known way to prevent the occurrence of the disease. As of 1998, it is estimated that each year, approximately 30,800 individuals will be diagnosed with the disease in the United States and 21,700 individuals will die of the disease.