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Leukemia is a cancer that affects the lymphatic system, which produces your white blood cells, and bone marrow, which makes red and white blood cells, and platelets. Because of this, people sometimes refer to leukemia as blood cancer or bone cancer.
Some types of leukemia tend to affect children. Others are more common in adults. Leukemia accounts for about a third of all childhood cancers.
Leukemia can be classified as:
Most leukemia in children is acute.
The type of leukemia also depends on the cells it affects–the lymphocytes, which govern your immune system, or the myeloid cells, which form red and white blood cells and the cells that make platelets so your blood can clot if you are injured.
Rarer types of leukemia include:
Doctors believe that leukemia starts when some blood cells develop mutations in their DNA, or other changes that aren’t well understood. These changes cause the cells to divide more rapidly and crowd out healthy blood cells.
No one knows what causes these changes to happen, but it’s believed that they may be influenced by genetic factors and by causes in your environment, such as exposure to radiation or a chemical called benzene.
Things that may raise your risk of leukemia include:
Your doctor may start by asking you questions about your symptoms. Or it may be that your leukemia was spotted in a routine blood test, without symptoms in either case, the next steps will involve:
Other tests may also be needed to confirm the diagnosis, pinpoint the type of leukemia, and find out how advanced it is.
Chronic leukemia can go without symptoms for a very long time, while other types may show symptoms much sooner. Common symptoms of leukemia include:
The outlook depends on the type of leukemia you have.
The outlook for patients with acute lymphocytic leukemia, or ALL, is better in younger patients, and best in children. 98% to 99% of kids with ALL go into remission in the first six months of treatment, and 9 out of 10 are cured. In adults, ALL goes into remission for 80% to 90%, but the disease is more likely to return than in children. This leads to an overall cure rate of 40%.
Acute myeloid leukemia is much more difficult to treat successfully. The 5-year survival rate is only about 25%. But for those who do survive 5 years, the disease doesn’t usually return.
Chronic lymphocytic leukemia has fast-growing and slow-growing varieties. CLL has a survival rate of 50% to 80% at 5 years, and 35% at 10 years. People with the slower type tend to live longer than those with the fast-growing variety.
Survival rates with chronic myeloid leukemia are hard to estimate because of new treatments developed around the turn of the century. But results so far look hopeful. One study found that 9 out of 10 patients taking the new drug Gleevec (imatinib) were still alive 5 years later, and most had normal white blood cell levels.
A diagnosis of leukemia can be frightening. Having a child with leukemia can be even harder. Some things you can do to help yourself cope include:
There is no standard screening test for leukemia, but sometimes a routine blood test may discover the disease.
For most people, there is no way to reduce the risk of leukemia. If you smoke, quitting can improve your odds. It’s also a good idea to avoid working with radiation or with chemicals such as benzene. If exposure is unavoidable, follow proper handling procedures to maximize safety.
Several treatments are available for leukemia. The best treatment for you depends on factors such as your age, your overall health, the type of leukemia you have, and how far it has spread. The available treatments include:
Sometimes a treatment may fall into more than one type. For instance, the new medicine Gleevec, which is showing promise in CML, is both a targeted therapy and a biologic agent.
There is no viable alternative to modern medicine for treating leukemia, but there are complementary treatments that can help manage symptoms, reduce treatment side effects, and improve your overall quality of life. For instance:
Only take vitamins and herbal supplements after consultation with your doctor, as these pills may affect how well your medical treatments work.
After completing treatment, you’ll need regular follow-up care to monitor your overall health and watch to make sure your cancer doesn’t return. This can range from monthly checkups for the first year after acute leukemia treatment to semiannual checkups if you had chronic leukemia. Follow-up care also helps watch for other cancers and for long-term effects that may develop after treatment.
It’s also very important to take care of your overall health by eating properly and staying active. Regular exercise and eating plenty of fruits and vegetables can help reduce your risk of cancer and prevent some long-term complications that may arise after leukemia treatment, such as obesity and heart disease.
In addition, it’s good to seek out emotional support from friends, family, and sometimes a counselor or other cancer survivors. The emotional strain of cancer can be more than you realize, and a good network can help you cope.
Leukemia symptoms may often seem like the flu or other common diseases. Talk to your doctor if you have symptoms that worry you and don’t go away.
Treating leukemia may take more than one type of specialist. The doctors on your health care team may include:
Your doctor can direct you to the specialists you need. Alternately, the National Cancer Institute can help you find a treatment center near you or You can also call 1-800-4-CANCER.
When you go to see your doctor, it’s good to have a list of the questions you’d like to have answered. Take a moment to write down some of the things you want to know. Your questions for your doctor might include some of these:
Other useful resources to help you learn about leukemia can be found at:
National Cancer Institute
American Cancer Society
Leukemia & Lymphoma Society
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