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Leukaemia: Early Signs, Diagnosis, and Treatment

Dr. Ajay KohliNov 22, 2022

Leukaemia is a cancer that originates in the body's blood-forming tissues, such as the lymphatic system and bone marrow.

It starts when the DNA of a single cell in the bone marrow mutates and begins to function abnormally. The bone marrow starts producing excessive amounts of abnormal white blood cells, leading to cancer development.

There are many types of leukaemia, some of which are more common in children. Certain types of leukaemia occur mostly in adults, especially those over 65 years of age.

Treatment for leukaemia depends upon the type, age, and overall health of the affected individual.

Leukaemia Cancer

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Symptoms of Leukaemia 

The symptoms of leukaemia vary according to the type of the disease as discussed below. Here are some common signs and symptoms:

  • Persistent fatigue/weakness

  • Frequent fever or chills

  • Frequent or severe infections

  • Easy bleeding or bruising

  • Tiny red spots on the skin 

  • Gum bleeding 

  • Excessive sweating

  • Unintentional weight loss

  • Swollen lymph nodes 

  • Enlarged liver or spleen

  • Recurrent nosebleeds

  • Bone pain 

  • Bone tenderness

  • Pale skin

  • Pain under the ribs on the left side

Symptoms of Leukaemia

What Causes Leukaemia?

It is not yet known what exactly causes leukaemia, but it is believed to develop when the genetic material or DNA in some blood cells mutate. Due to the mutation, the blood cells begin growing and dividing uncontrollably.

With time, these abnormal cells start affecting the healthy blood cells in the bone marrow, leading to fewer healthy red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. This leads to the development of leukaemia cancer. 

Types of Leukaemia 

There are a few types of leukaemia. The disease is classified based on the blood cells affected and its speed of progression:

  • Acute Lymphocytic Leukaemia (ALL): This type of leukaemia progresses rapidly and is the most common type of the disease in children, teenagers, and adults up to age 39. Older adults can also get ALL.

  • Acute Myelogenous Leukaemia (AML): This is a common type of leukaemia cancer that occurs in both children and adults. It affects older adults above the age of 65 more frequently. It is a fast-growing cancer. 

  • Chronic Lymphocytic Leukaemia (CLL): CLL is a slow-growing cancer that begins in lymphocytes in the bone marrow, and then spreads to the blood. People with CLL can survive for many years without experiencing severe symptoms.  

  • Chronic Myelogenous Leukaemia (CML): CML is a slow-growing leukaemia cancer that begins in the blood-forming cells of the bone marrow. There are often no obvious symptoms in the early stages of the disease. Around 50% of all CML cases are diagnosed by a blood test even before symptoms have begun.

  • Other Types: Other types of leukaemia, including hairy cell leukaemia (HCL), large granular lymphocytic (LGL), myelodysplastic syndromes, and myeloproliferative disorders, are rarer. 

How is Leukaemia Diagnosed?

If someone is experiencing symptoms commonly associated with leukaemia, they would be recommended some tests to get a proper diagnosis.

Sometimes, healthcare providers may find certain types of leukaemia in a routine blood test. The following diagnostic tests are recommended in case of suspected leukaemia:

  • Physical Examination: During a physical examination, your doctor will check for signs like pale skin, swollen lymph nodes, enlargement of the liver and spleen, etc. 

  • Blood Tests: Your blood sample will be checked to determine whether the levels of red and white blood cells and platelets are normal. Leukaemia cells may also sometimes show up in blood tests, though this is not always the case.

  • Bone Marrow Test: If leukaemia is suspected, then your doctor may recommend a bone marrow test. A sample of bone marrow from the hip bone is removed and examined for leukaemia cells. 

How is Leukaemia Treated?

Different kinds of leukaemia cancer call for different treatments. The treatments depend upon the type of leukaemia, the affected person’s age and overall health.

In general, treatments for leukaemia include a combination of the following:

  • Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy is the most common treatment for those with leukaemia. It involves using powerful chemicals to kill the cancer cells in the body. Chemotherapy can be administered in pill form, injections, or a shot under the skin. Usually, a combination of chemotherapy drugs is used.

  • Radiation Therapy: In radiation therapy, high-energy beams such as X-rays are used to kill cancer cells or halt their growth. Depending upon the type of cancer and its progression, the person may receive radiation over their whole body or in some specific areas. Radiation is also given before a hematopoietic cell transplant or bone marrow transplant.

  • Targeted Therapy: Targeted therapy focuses on specific abnormalities within the leukaemia cell, and prevents these cells from multiplying. Some targeted therapy drugs may even kill cancer cells. This therapy has lower chances of harming normal cells than chemotherapy. Tyrosine kinase inhibitors and monoclonal antibodies are among the commonly used targeted therapy drugs. 

  • Immunotherapy: In immunotherapy, certain drugs are used to boost the body’s disease-fighting immune system and help in the production of more immune cells to fight cancer. 

  • Hematopoietic Cell Transplant (Bone Marrow Transplant): In this treatment, cancerous cells in the bone marrow are destroyed by chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy and are replaced with leukaemia-free stem cells to promote the regeneration of healthy bone marrow. The healthy cells may be harvested from your own blood before the treatment starts, or they can be taken from a healthy donor.

  • Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR) T-Cell Therapy: This is a new and specialised treatment for leukaemia cancer that involves harvesting the body’s infection-fighting immune cells called T-cells. These cells are then genetically engineered to fight leukaemia cancer cells and are infused back into the body.

In Conclusion

A leukaemia cancer diagnosis can be very intimidating and disheartening.

However, with timely diagnosis and proper medical care, the symptoms of leukaemia can be effectively managed. People with leukaemia can maintain a decent quality of life with consistent medical care. Availing good quality medical care over a prolonged period for leukaemia can put anyone in a financial crunch. Not being prepared to face a medical emergency can be disastrous in so many ways.

One good way of protecting yourself and your family against a leukaemia cancer diagnosis is to invest in a comprehensive health insurance plan.

With a sound health insurance policy, you would be able to access good medical care, and pay for treatments and surgeries in time.

You may also receive a predetermined amount in case of a diagnosis and will get coverage for future medical expenses. Check out ACKO’s health plans for a hassle-free insurance experience.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here’s a list of common questions and answers related to leukaemia

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Is leukaemia a curable cancer?

Some types of leukaemia are highly receptive to treatment, with a vast majority of people diagnosed with the disease going into complete remission.

What causes leukaemia cancer?

Leukaemia is believed to develop when some blood cells acquire mutations in their genetic material or DNA.

Who gets leukaemia the most?

Most cases of leukaemia occur in older adults over the age of 65.

What can be mistaken for leukaemia?

Leukaemia is commonly misdiagnosed as influenza, fever, bleeding disorders, pathological fractures, and immune thrombocytopenic purpura.

Disclaimer: The content on this page is generic and shared only for informational and explanatory purposes. Please consult a doctor before making any health-related decisions.

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