What is Leukemia?
Leukemia is a blood cancer that causes an uncontrolled production of abnormal white cells that are unable to mature properly.. Blood is produced in the bone marrow, and it consists of blood cells and plasma. Plasma is the fluid part of the blood which acts to transport blood cells. Blood cells consist of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. The function of red blood cells is to transport oxygen from the lungs to rest of the body. A shortage of blood red cells will result in anemia. White blood cells serve to fight off infection from bacteria and fungi. A shortage of it will result in neutropenia, or a weakened bodily defense system. Platelets are essential for clotting blood to prevent further bleeding. Insufficient platelets will result in thrombocytopenia or prolonged bleeding and loss of blood
In a healthy individual, blood cells are released by the bone marrow upon maturity. In the case of leukemia, the body begins to produce and accumulate immature white cells. These leukemic cells interfere with normal production of healthy blood cells as they crowd out the bone marrow, and thereby drastically reduce the number of healthy mature cells. As a result, the patient may develop symptoms of anemia such as feeling lethargic, shortness of breath on exertion, heart palpitations etc. Their immune system is compromised due to the lack of normal white cells. They cannot fight infections as readily. Due to low platelet counts, the patient may suffer from bleeding problems, e.g. easy bruising, nose bleeding etc.
What causes Leukemia?
Factors that may cause leukemia are not clear for majority of individuals. Only a few causes are known to have contributed to the diseases, and they may include a person’s genetic history, exposure to intense radiation and certain chemicals and viruses like the Human T-Cell Leukemia virus.
What are the symptoms of Leukemia?
Individuals may develop symptoms of anemia such as feeling lethargic, shortness of breath on exertion, heart palpitations etc. Their immune system is compromised due to the lack of normal white cells. They cannot fight infections as readily. Due to low platelet counts, the patient may suffer from bleeding problems, e.g. easy bruising, nose bleeding etc. For accurate diagnosis, it is best to consult your physician to have your blood count tested to determine if you have leukemia.
How is Leukemia diagnosed?
Blood test and bone marrow examination can determine whether individuals are suffering from leukemia. A sample of blood would be taken and the counts of hemoglobin, white cells and platelets would be examined to see if it falls within normal range. Symptoms of acute leukemia tend to include low hemoglobin, low mature white cells and platelet counts while the abnormal white cell counts can be high, normal or even low. For bone marrow examination, a sample would be extracted using a specially designed needle and the marrow slides are examined under microscope.
Leukemia falls broadly under two categories, acute and chronic. These are again subdivided into Myelogenous and Lymphocytic.
Acute leukemia is a rapidly progressing disease that affects mostly cells that are unformed or primitive (not yet fully developed or differentiated). These immature cells cannot carry out their normal functions.
Chronic leukemia progresses slowly and permits the growth of greater numbers of more developed cells. In general, these more mature cells can carry out some of their normal functions.
Major Types of Leukemia
· Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (AML)
· Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL)
· Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML)
· Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL)
The ability to measure specific features of cells has led to further sub- classification of the major categories of leukemia. The categories and subsets allow the physician to decide what treatment works best for the cell type and how quickly the disease may develop.