By Dr. Chandrakanth Mv, Oncology
Leukemia is known more commonly as blood cancer. It generally affects the bone marrow or the lymphatic system of the body. Bone marrow is responsible for the production of blood in the body. However, leukemia mostly affects the white blood cells that help in fighting infections and perform other functions as well. Moreover, leukemia is the most common form of cancer occurring among children but is certainly not limited to them.
Leukemia is often caused by mutations in the DNA of blood cells, mainly white blood cells. The blood cells grow and divide excessively resulting in an overflow of white blood cells. The abnormal white blood cells continue to live and start to crowd out the healthy blood cells in the bone marrow. This situation leads to the symptoms and signs of leukemia. However, for better diagnosis and treatment, leukemia is categorized according to the speed of progression and the type of cells that are affected. In acute leukemia, blood cells grow and divide abnormally but do not carry out their normal function. It is more aggressive and progresses rapidly, thereby requiring timely treatment. Chronic leukemia, on the other hand, progresses more slowly and involves more mature cells that can function normally for a long time.
Based on the type of cells affected, leukemia is classified into lymphocytic and myelogenous leukemia. Lymphocytic leukemia is characterized by changes of lymphocytes in the bone marrow. Lymphocytes are white blood cells that make up our immune system. Myelogenous leukemia affects the cells in bone marrow that produce red blood cells, other types of white cells and platelets.
Based on these two types of classification, leukemia is of four types- acute lymphocytic leukemia, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, acute myelogenous leukemia and chronic myelogenous leukemia.
Acute leukemia may be easy to detect owing to its rapid progression but chronic leukemia is much slower in progression and is difficult to diagnose. However, leukemia may be detected incidentally during a physical exam and routine blood tests. This is especially true for acute lymphocytic and myelogenous leukemia which is more common in children. Symptoms for both acute lymphocytic and myelogenous vary based on the changes in the red or white blood cells. Red blood cells carry oxygen to all the cells of the body. Therefore, symptoms include tiredness, weakness, feeling cold, feeling dizzy or lightheaded, headaches, shortness of breath and pale skin. Moreover, children having low white blood cells often have prolonged infection or have infection one after the other. They also have fever and experience easy bruising and bleeding, frequent or severe nosebleeds and bleeding gums. Other general symptoms of leukemia that can be seen among children and adults alike include enlarged lymph nodes, swelling of the belly, loos of weight, bone or joint pain, coughing or having trouble breathing.
Therefore, leukemia is easier to detect in children than in adults and is often diagnosed during a weekly visit to a pediatric. Moreover, treatment is based on the type of leukemia you have and generally involve chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery. However, the prognosis for leukemia in children is better compared to that in adults.