Leukemia is a cancer of the blood cells. In cancer, cells become abnormal and grow out of control. As the number of abnormal blood cells increase, the healthy blood cells are outnumbered. There are three main types of blood cells. Each has a distinct job:
- White blood cells (WBC), also called lymphocytes, are most often involved in leukemia. Their main job is to help the immune system.
- Red blood cells (RBC) carry oxygen throughout the body.
- Platelets help the blood clot at injury sites.
Leukemia cells cannot do the job of normal blood cells. This causes many of the
symptoms of leukemia. The disease starts in the bone marrow where blood cells are made. The most common types of leukemia are:
White Blood Cells
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Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. The doctor will check for swelling of the liver; spleen; or lymph nodes in the armpits, groin, and neck.
Tests may include the following:
- Blood tests—to look for leukemia cells in blood
Bone marrow aspiration and
—the removal of a sample of bone marrow to look for cancer cells
If cancer cells are found, additional tests may be done. These tests check if the cancer has spread and what systems may already be affected.
—removal of liquid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord
—to look for signs of cancer in the chest
—type of x-ray that uses a computer to make pictures of structures inside the body
—test that uses magnetic waves to make pictures of structures inside the body
—test that uses sound waves to examine masses and organs inside the body
Positron emission tomography
(PET)—test makes images that show the amount of activity in body tissues
The goal for acute leukemia is to destroy all signs of the disease and return the blood and bone marrow to normal. Chronic leukemia is rarely curable. Treatment focuses on slowing disease progression.
Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Options include the following:
(Gleevec)—used to treat myeloid leukemia by reducing the number of cancer cells in the blood and bone marrow
—targeted therapy similar to imatinib
—targeted therapy similar to imatinib (if leukemia cells become resistant to imatinib)
These drugs can cause infertility and early
. Talk to your doctor about your fertility options before you start treatment.
Your doctor may prescribe medicine to stimulate the production of healthy blood cells, such as:
- Epoetin alpha
Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. It may be given in many forms including pill, injection, and via a catheter. The drugs enter the bloodstream and travel through the body killing mostly cancer cells. Some healthy cells are killed as well. The specific combination of drugs will depend on the type of leukemia, your age, and condition.
Radiation therapy is a type of treatment that uses radiation to kill cancer cells. Typically, it is only used to prepare for a bone marrow transplant or in some cases of chronic leukemia.
—Healthy blood cells from a donor are given through an intravenous line (IV). This may be done if the leukemia is causing shortness of breath, fatigue, or severe bleeding.
Bone marrow transplant
—Stem cells from a donor’s healthy bone marrow are injected in you. Stem cells can make all types of blood cells. Once injected into your bloodstream, the stem cells should make healthy blood cells.
—The spleen may need to be removed if it becomes congested with leukemia cells.
Biological Therapy (Immunotherapy)
The therapy uses medications or substances made by the body to improve your body’s defense against cancer. This type of treatment is still fairly new and under investigation. Talk with you doctor about whether this treatment is an option for you and about clinical trials in your area.