What is Leukemia?
Leukemia is a type of cancer that affects the white blood cells in the body. There are multiple types of leukemia, classified as either acute (which can grow quickly) or chronic (slower growing). They are also further divided into the types of cells they start in. The main types of leukemia are:
- Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL)
- Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML)
- Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL)
- Chronic Myeloid Leukemia (CML)
- Chronic Myelomonocytic Leukemia (CMML)
Signs and Symptoms
The exact signs and symptoms that are associated with leukemia can differ based on the type of leukemia someone has. People with acute, quickly-growing leukemia, they may develop symptoms quickly and severely. For those who have chronic leukemia, they may not have any symptoms, and if they do, they may be mild. Generalized symptoms of leukemia include:
- Unexplained fevers
- Unintentional weight loss
- Being very tired or feeling weak
- Bruising without any injury to the skin
- Bleeding, such as nosebleeds or gum bleeding
- Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
- Night sweats
- Pale skin
- Enlarged lymph nodes
When someone presents with the above symptoms, the healthcare team may order testing to help determine the cause of what they’re experiencing. One of the most commonly ordered blood tests is a complete blood count (CBC). This blood test evaluates the numbers of white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. These levels can be significantly abnormal (both higher and lower than normal) in someone with leukemia.
Along with CBC, a blood smear may also be done. This test allows the pathologist to look at how the different blood cells look under the microscope, to check for the presence of early white blood cells, called blasts, which can signify leukemia.
Additional blood tests, such as flow cytometry, can be done to evaluate the white blood cells in a specific way. This test looks to see if leukemia cells are present in the sample.
A bone marrow biopsy is often done when leukemia is suspected. This test takes a sample of bone and bone marrow (where blood cells are made) from the hip bone to evaluate for the presence of leukemia cells in the bone marrow.
Once a diagnosis of leukemia is made, further testing is often done evaluating chromosomes of the cells to help further clarify the diagnosis. Exactly what tests are done can be a bit different for each type of leukemia.
A CT scan may be done to check out the organs of the body, such as the lungs, liver, and spleen, to see if they look normal. A PET scan may also be done to look for the presence of leukemia cells outside of the bone marrow or bloodstream.
How leukemia is treated depends upon the type of leukemia someone has. Treatments can vary from no treatment needed except observation to intensive chemotherapy and bone marrow transplant.