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Understanding Leukaemia: Symptoms, causes, types and treatment

Team AckoJan 17, 2024

Blood, which makes up about 8% of the body weight, is an essential component of your body. It circulates through your arteries and veins to all your organs, supplying oxygen, hormones, nutrients, and antibodies. Blood is made of red blood cells, white blood cells, plasma, and platelets. These blood cells are produced by the bone marrow or the lymphatic system. Leukaemia occurs when your bone marrow produces leukocytes or white blood cells uncontrollably and makes it difficult for the body's immune system to fight infection.  According to the National Cancer Institute, Leukaemia typically affects people over the age of 55. However, it is also the most commonly seen cancer in children under 15 years.

There are several types of Leukaemia. This article provides an overview of the disease, its symptoms, causes, types, and treatment.




What is Leukaemia?

Leukemia is a condition that occurs when a specific type of white blood cell begins to multiply abnormally. The disease destroys healthy blood cells and takes over the bone marrow. Due to the abnormal growth of white blood cells, your bone marrow finds it difficult to produce other vital blood cells, such as red blood cells and platelets. This deficiency of RBCs and platelets may lead to anaemia, severe bleeding, and bruising.

White blood cells are very much essential for your immune system. They help protect your body from the attack of bacteria, viruses, fungi, abnormal cells, and foreign substances. But when you have Leukaemia, these white blood cells do not function normally and your body loses its power to fight infections.

What causes Leukemia?

The causes of Leukaemia are unclear. However, there can be several risk factors that can help develop this disease. Some of them are listed here.

  • Previous exposure to radiation or chemotherapy

  • Down syndrome

  • Frequent exposure to petrochemicals such as benzene

  • Genetic predisposition

  • Family history of Leukaemia

  • Certain blood disorders like myelodysplastic syndrome (a disorder where blood cells are poorly formed or don't function properly)

  • Human T-lymphotropic virus (HTLV)

  • Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)

  • Frequent exposure to artificial ionising radiation

  • Usage of tobacco and smoking

What are the different types of Leukaemia?

Leukaemia is classified into two categories, depending on how rapidly it grows and which type of blood cell is affected.

Classification based on disease progression

  1. Acute Leukaemia: This type of Leukaemia involves rapid division of cells and quick progression of the disease. If you have acute Leukaemia, you start to feel sick within a few weeks of the starting of the disease. This condition is life-threatening and needs instant treatment. Acute Leukaemia is common in children.

2. Chronic Leukaemia: This disease develops slowly over time compared to acute Leukaemia. In chronic Leukaemia, you may not notice symptoms for years. It is more common in adults.

Classification based on cell type

1. Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML): It is the most common form of Leukaemia that can occur in both adults and children. The five-year survival rate of this Leukaemia is 30.5 %.

2. Acute Lymphocytic Leukaemia (ALL): It is the type of Leukaemia that affects mostly children, teens, and young adults up to the age of 39 years. The five-year relative survival rate is 70.8%.

3. Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia (CML): Most older adults over the age of 65 get affected by CML. Symptoms may appear after several years. It can rarely affect children. The five-year survival rate is 70.4%.

4. Chronic Lymphocytic Leukaemia (CLL): It is most likely to occur in individuals over the age of 55. Children are rarely affected by CLL. Like chronic myeloid Leukaemia, the symptoms may take a long to appear. The five-year survival rate of CLL is 87.8%.

Symptoms of Leukaemia

The symptoms of Leukaemia depend on the type of cancer. For example, if you have chronic Leukaemia, you will not notice any symptoms during the earlier days. However, the common symptoms of Leukaemia may include the following.

  • Excessive night sweats

  • Fever and chills

  • Pale skin

  • Feeling lethargic and weak even after taking rest

  • Unintended weight loss

  • Loss of appetite

  • Bone and joint pain with tenderness

  • Swollen lymph nodes located near the neck, armpit, or groin

  • Enlargement of spleen or liver

  • Easy bruising and bleeding

  • Recurrent infections

  • Petechiae (red spot on the skin)

  • Purpura (purplish or darkened patches on the skin)

  • Fullness or pain under the rib on the left side

Diagnosing Leukaemia

You might be diagnosed with Leukaemia if you show certain symptoms. Your doctor might then ask you to have some tests done to confirm the diagnosis.

1. Physical examination

Your doctor may ask about your symptoms and physically examine the swollen lymph nodes, an enlarged liver, or the spleen. Your doctor may also check for bleeding or swelling gums or skin rashes that may appear red, purple, or dark.

2. Complete Blood Count (CBC)

This test looks at abnormal growth of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. A WBC count that is significantly higher than normal indicates Leukaemia.

3. Flow cytometry and peripheral blood smear indicate

This additional test is done to check the markers that indicate the presence of Leukaemia cells or any particular type of Leukaemia.

4. Bone marrow biopsy

If your blood test report shows abnormally high levels of white blood cells, then your healthcare provider may recommend performing a biopsy of the bone marrow. A long, hollow needle is pierced into your bone marrow to aspirate fluid from it. The fluid is tested in a lab to look for the presence of Leukaemia cells. A bone marrow biopsy helps determine the type of Leukaemia you have.

5. Spinal tap or lumbar puncture

A special needle is inserted into the spinal canal, to draw spinal fluid. This sample is tested to see if Leukaemia has metastasized to the brain and spinal cord.

6. Imaging tests

If your symptoms indicate that Leukaemia has spread to other organs, bones, or tissue, your doctor may recommend an X-ray, CT scan, or MRI scan.

How is Leukaemia treated?

The type of cancer you have, your age and overall health, how quickly the cancer is growing, and whether it has spread to other parts of your body are all factors that influence how you are treated for Leukaemia. Because blood cancer treatments have vastly improved over the last few decades, various blood cancers are now highly treatable. Some common treatments are explained briefly below.

1. Chemotherapy

It is the most widely used form of Leukaemia treatment. During this treatment, chemicals are given in the form of an oral pill or an injection through a vein to kill the cancer cells. It is usually given as a combination of several chemotherapy drugs.

2. Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy involves the use of high-energy radiation beams to kill or prevent the development of Leukaemia cells. Radiation beams may be applied to the exact location in your body where cancer cells are found or to the entire body, depending on the spread.

3. Bone marrow transplant

This process of treatment involves stem cell transplantation. During this treatment, diseased bone marrow is replaced by the healthy bone marrow. This can be either from your own body or from a donor. The new healthy cells start to multiply and form new bone marrow and blood cells.

4. Immunotherapy

In this type of treatment, certain drugs are given to you to strengthen your immunity. Immunotherapy helps your immune system identify and fight cancer cells.

5. Targeted therapy

As the name suggests, targeted therapy is a way to use specially designed drugs to kill only cancerous cells without damaging healthy cells. Targeted therapy helps prevent cancer cells from multiplying or directly killing them. Certain targeted therapy drugs include tyrosine-kinase inhibitors and monoclonal antibodies. It is generally used to treat Leukaemia.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Here’s a list of frequently asked questions related to Leukaemia.


What causes Leukaemia?

The exact cause of Leukaemia is unclear. However, previous radiation or chemotherapy exposure, Down syndrome, frequent exposure to petrochemicals such as benzene, genetic predisposition, and a family history of Leukaemia may all play a role in the development of this disease.

What are the common symptoms of Leukaemia?

The symptoms of Leukaemia depend on the type of cancer. For example, you may not notice symptoms during the early stages if you have chronic Leukaemia. However, certain common signs include the following.

  • Excessive night sweats

  • Fever and chills

  • Feeling lethargic and weak even after taking rest

  • Unintended weight loss

  • Loss of appetite

  • Swollen lymph nodes located near the neck, armpit, or groin

  • Enlargement of spleen or liver

  • Easy bruising and bleeding

  • Recurrent infections

  • Red, purple, or dark spots on the skin

What is the survival rate of Leukaemia?

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the 5-year relative survival rate for all types of Leukaemia is 65%.

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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