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Leukemia is a cancer that affects the white blood cells.  There are more than a dozen different types of leukemia, classified by the type of white blood cells that each affects.  Leukemia is also classified by whether it is chronic (taking a long time to develop, sometimes years) or whether it is acute (meaning that it is active and aggressive).  There are five major types of leukemia: acute and chronic lymphocytic leukemia, acute and chronic myelogenous leukemia and hairy cell leukemia.

Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia

This is also known as adult lymphoblastic leukemia, or ALL.  ALL is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow and if it is left untreated it can quickly develop into a life-threatening disease.  Symptoms of ALL can include shortness of breath, easy bleeding, fevers, feeling tired all the time, loss of appetite, a feeling of tiredness in the bones, stomachaches and painless lumps under the arms, in the groin, the neck or the stomach.  Some of the risk factors associated with ALL include: being 70 years of age or older, being male, being white, having Down’s Syndrome or having been exposed to radiation.

Acute Myelogenous Leukemia

Acute myelogenous leukemia, AML, affects the bone marrow and causes the body to produce abnormal red or white blood cells or abnormal platelets, which are needed for blood clotting.  This is a particularly aggressive form of leukemia which gets worse quickly if not dealt with.  This is the most common form of acute leukemia in adults.  Some of the risk factors for AML include being male, smoking, having had radiation or chemotherapy in the past, having a history of blood disorders or having been exposed to the chemical benzene.

Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia

About 10,000 cases of chronic lymphocytic leukemia, or CLL, were diagnosed last year in the U.S.  In this type of leukemia a change takes place in the DNA of the bone marrow, causing it to begin producing cancerous cells.  No one knows exactly why this happens or how to prevent it.  Fortunately, because this is a chronic condition, the introduction of cancerous cells into the blood stream takes place slowly and over time, giving doctors a chance to treat it.  CLL is rare in individuals under age 35 and generally only strikes after age 60.  Because this disease comes on so slowly may people go undiagnosed for years. Some symptoms include fatigue, weight loss, shortness of breath and frequent kidney and skin infections.  Chemotherapy and stem cell replacement therapy are the two primary treatments.

Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia

Chronic myelogenous leukemia, or CML, causes the bone marrow to produce abnormal, cancerous white blood cells.  CML rarely strikes children and is a slowly-progressing leukemia that may take several years to develop to the point that it requires medical attention.  There are several symptoms which may eventually present themselves, including night sweats, sudden weight loss, fever, a feeling of being constantly tired, or a pain below the ribs on the left side of the body.  There are no known causes of CML.  Some of the factors affecting a patient’s chances of recovery include the age of the patient,  how many leukemia cells are concentrated in the blood, the stage of development of the disease, the size of the spleen at the time of diagnosis, and the patient’s overall health.

Hairy Cell Leukemia

Hairy cell leukemia affects the bone marrow and certain types of white blood cells.  The reason this type of leukemia is called hairy cell is because the affected white blood cells appear hairy when viewed under a microscope.  Hairy cell leukemia is one of the slowest-progressing forms of leukemia and in many patients it never causes any symptoms.  However, if hairy cell leukemia does progress its symptoms include fatigue, a tendency to bruise easily, fevers, frequent infections, weight loss or a feeling of being slightly bloated just below the ribs.  The only known risk factor for hairy cell leukemia is being an older male – although it can strike either sex after approximately age 35.  Treatment is generally confined to chemotherapy or stem cell replacement.  In some cases hairy cell leukemia grows so slowly that no treatment is warranted.  When treatment is called for, the type of treatment you will receive will depend on the number of hairy cells in your blood count, your age, your overall health, what symptoms are present and whether or not your spleen has been affected.

All cancers respond to treatment best when detected early.  If you have any of the symptoms listed in this article it does not mean you have leukemia, but it does mean you should consult with your doctor for possible tests.

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