What is Leukemia?
Leukemia is a type of cancer affecting the blood, bone marrow and lymphatic systems of the body. In simple terms, it’s a cancer of the blood. While it’s commonly thought of as a disease affecting children, multiple types of the disease exist and affect different age groups. A few types specifically affect adults and is commonly diagnosed in older adults between the ages of 65 to 74.
Leukemia in adults and leukemia in general begin in the white blood cells, which are crucial players in the body’s ability to regulate and fight infection. In a leukemia patient, white blood cells (known as myeloblasts) grow and divide at an abnormally fast rate.
With this disproportionate amount of white blood cells in the body, they cannot function normally.
The root cause of developing leukemia is thought to be in the DNA, where mutations occur. As we’ll discuss later, since the ultimate cause of leukemia is not fully known, there are likely other contributing causes that are not yet understood.
Ultimately, leukemia can affect both the white and red blood cells as well as platelets. The type of leukemia determines the type and aggressiveness of treatment needed. In general, in acute leukemia the progression of unhealthy amounts of blood cells occurs much more quickly, meaning it’s imperative to treat it aggressively. With chronic leukemia, the progression of the disease may look different – potentially involving too many cells or even too few cells. In general, chronic leukemia means a much slower progression and therefore may go unnoticed for years.
Symptoms and Signs of Leukemia in Adults
With either acute or chronic leukemia, the following signs of leukemia in adults are common:
- Bleeding and unexplained bruising.
- Weakness, shortness of breath.
- Unexplained weight loss.
- Joint pain.
- Chills and fever.
- Swollen lymph nodes or spleen.
- Sweating at night.
- Painful or tender bones.
- Persistent or severe infections.
- Frequent nosebleeds.
- Small red spots on the skin.
Unfortunately, especially in chronic leukemia cases, it can be hard to connect the dots and realize your symptoms are related to leukemia. Since many symptoms are vague or could be attributed to many other ailments such as the flu, leukemia can easily go undiagnosed.
It’s important to the advice of your doctor if you have any of these symptoms that cannot easily be otherwise explained. Your doctor will be able to check your blood cell count and determine if it’s abnormal. On that note, in some cases where no symptoms are obvious, the leukemia might be diagnosed as a result of a routine blood test.
Risk Factors for Getting Leukemia in Adulthood
There is no clear-cut known cause for leukemia at this time. There’s no one cause or genetic related factor that means you will get it, and therefore, there’s no one thing you can do to prevent leukemia as an adult (or child.)
However, some risk factors do increase the likelihood of leukemia. These include:
- Being a smoker.
- Exposure to high levels of radiation, such as on the job or from medical imaging.
- Having chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy in the past.
- If there’s a family history of leukemia.
- Certain genetic orders, like Down syndrome.
If you or someone you know has any number of the above symptoms, or even just a persistent feeling of being unwell, head to your doctor. By testing your blood they’ll be able to determine if your white blood cell count is off, and therefore if it’s likely leukemia.
The next step in the diagnosis will likely be testing the bone marrow itself via a needle biopsy. This will confirm the diagnosis and reveal what type of leukemia it is, thus informing what the best route of treatment is.
As with many types of cancer, one of the primary treatment options for leukemia currently is chemotherapy. In a patient with acute leukemia, the treatment will likely include chemotherapy to get the disease in remission, plus blood and platelet transfections, antibiotics, and other medicines to help with various side effects.
Depending on the patient, the chemotherapy may need to be repeated for a number of months to keep the leukemia in remission. In some cases, patients will need to receive a donation of marrow stem cells to replenish their own depleted sore of blood cells after undergoing chemo.
In patients with the slower-progressing chronic leukemia, the treatment might be much slower and far less aggressive. This means there may be no need for immediate chemotherapy. Or, oral chemotherapy may keep the disease under control for a period of time. In some cases, certain drugs can help control the blood cell mutation and drug treatment can be a viable treatment option. Depending on the patient, doctors will be able to prescribe any number of various medicines or a combination to help treat the underlying disease and the side effects.
Regardless of the type of leukemia, your doctor will create a treatment plan based on your individual factors such as age, type of the disease, overall prior health, and more.