Leukemia is among the top 20 cancers worldwide causing approximately 350,000 deaths worldwide, each year. It is the most common cancer in children and teenagers below 20 years of age however, it can affect people of all ages especially those from 55 years and above.
What Is Leukemia?
Leukemia is a type of cancer that affects the blood-forming tissues of the body, these are; the bone marrow and the lymphatic system which is made up of the white blood cells that fight infections. Having gone through previous cancer treatment, being exposed to chemicals and genetic disorders are some of the risk factors for this cancer.
Symptoms of Leukemia
This cancer can bring about symptoms such as:
- Frequent and severe infections,
- Fever and chills,
- Unintentional weight loss,
- Easy bruising and bleeding,
- Recurrent nosebleeds,
- Persistent fatigue,
- Painless swollen lymph nodes,
- Enlarged liver and spleen,
- Red spots on the skin, and
- Bone pain and tenderness.
When the cancer spreads to the central nervous system, it can cause symptoms like:
- Nausea and vomiting,
- Confusion, Headache,
- Seizures, and
- Loss of muscle control.
Causes of Leukemia
Leukaemia is said to occur when blood cells acquire mutations in their DNA- which is what aids in their actions. The main classifications of this cancer are:
- Acute Leukemia: This type of leukemia is most common in children and occurs when abnormal blood cells multiply rapidly being unable to carry out their normal functions.
- Chronic Leukaemia: This cancer on the other hand, is more common in adults from 55 years and above, and it involves more mature cells which replicate much slower and function normally for a long period of time.
Even though the exact cause for this cancer is unknown, there are some factors that are said to increase a person’s risk of developing this cancer and these are:
- Having a close family member who has had leukemia,
- Genetic disorders such as Down Syndrome which is caused by having an extra chromosome in the DNA can increase leukemia cancer risk. Blood disorders such as polycythaemia vera; a disease which involves having too many red blood cells in the bone marrow and blood that cause the blood to become thick, can also increase the risk for leukemia cancer,
- Having gone through previous cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation,
- Being exposed to certain chemicals like benzene and high radiation levels, and
- Smoking can also increase leukemia cancer risk, especially acute leukemia.
Diagnosis of Leukemia
The diagnosis of this cancer usually begins, like most diseases, with a doctor’s consultation; where the doctor gets to now which symptoms you are experiencing, your medical history and that of your family. During this consultation, the doctor carries out a physical examination to check for visible signs of leukemia such as swelling of the lymph nodes and enlargement of the liver and spleen.
After carrying out a physical exam, the doctor can then order for other tests to confirm if what you have is leukemia. These tests include:
- Blood tests to determine if you have abnormal levels of red, white blood cells or platelets which can indicate leukaemia.
- Bone marrow test to check for leukemia cells in a sample of bone marrow which is removed using a long, thin needle.
Other tests include:
- Liver function tests to check whether the leukemia is affecting the liver,
- Flow cytometry to examine the DNA of the cancer cells and determine their growth rate,
- Lumbar puncture to check spinal fluid and determine whether the cancer has spread to the central nervous system. And
- Imaging tests which are done to check for damage that leukaemia may have been caused to other organs. These can be done using computerized tomography, x-ray and ultrasounds.
The treatment of this cancer depends on the type of leukemia one has and the stage of the cancer. Once a doctor has determined that, the following treatments can be used:
- Chemotherapy: This is the major treatment of leukemia which involves using anti-cancer drugs to kill cancer cells.
- Radiation therapy: It involves using high-energy beams to destroy cancer cells and thereby, stop them from growing.
- Targeted therapy: Using drugs to kill the specific cancer cells without harming normal body cells.
- Biological therapy: Also known as immunotherapy and is done to make the body’s immunity aware of the presence of cancer cells in the body and be able to fight the cancer.
- Bone marrow transplant: This treatment option is also referred to as stem cell transplant and is done by replacing diseased bone marrow with healthy bone marrow from a donor or from the person’s own body which is harvested from the person, stored and later given to the person.
Prevention of Leukaemia
There is no specific way to prevent leukemia, however, you can reduce your risks for this disease by:
- Not smoking,
- Avoiding exposure to certain chemicals and large amounts of radiation especially at the work place or in the environment, and
- Getting screened for this cancer regularly.