Definition: What Is Leukemia?
Leukemia is a cancer of the blood cells of the bone marrow. It should not be confused with lymphomas that develop from the ganglia. In case of leukemia, the manufacture of white blood cells by the bone marrow is strongly altered. Abnormal cells called leukemic cells are created in high amounts and proliferate in the bone marrow. They then spread into the bloodstream and can reach vital organs. This proliferation of abnormal cells disrupts the production of "normal" white blood cells and weakens the immune system. It also involves a deficiency of red blood cells and platelets.
Forms Of Leukemia
There are different forms of leukemia which are distinguished according to the affected white blood cells and the speed of evolution of the disease.
- Acute leukemia: Its evolution is very fast. Abnormal cells fail to mature and accumulate in the bone marrow. Symptoms appear quickly and treatment should be started as soon as possible.
- Chronic leukemia: Abnormal cells have time to mature. The process is therefore much longer and spreads over several years.
- Lymphoid or lymphoblastic leukemia: Lymphoid leukemia affects white blood cells called lymphocytes. Abnormal cells are lymphoblasts. Depending on the evolution, acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) is differentiated from chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). ALL is the most common form of acute leukemia in young children, whereas CLL mainly affects people over 60 years of age.
- Myeloid leukemia: The cells affected by leukemia are granulocytes. The abnormal form is called myeloblast.
Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) evolves rapidly, while chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) evolves more slowly. AML is the most common form of acute leukemia in adolescents, whereas CLL affects mostly people between 25 and 60 years of age.
Symptoms Of Leukemia
The signs of leukemia are different depending on the form. Acute leukemia has symptoms close to those of the flu (fever, chills, headaches ...). They can be severe. Platelet deficiency makes coagulation difficult and leads to bleeding (especially in the gums or nose), heavy periods and blood spots on the skin.
Chronic lymphocytic leukemia is expressed primarily by persistent fatigue and weakness. In chronic myeloid leukemia, the main symptoms are an increase in lymph node volume, an upper respiratory tract infection and an enlarged spleen.
Causes Of Leukemia
Several factors are known to increase the risk of developing leukemia: chronic exposure to chemicals or radioactivity, genetic predisposition or some viruses and diseases. The cause of the disease, however, remains unknown in 9 out of 10 cases.
Treatment Of Leukemia
Several treatments are available depending on the individual, the type of leukemia contracted and the course of the disease. In cases of acute leukemia, the treatment aims to destroy a maximum amount of the abnormal cells. Intensive chemotherapy is often used, combined with radiation therapy, blood transfusions and, if necessary, a bone marrow transplant.
As the evolution of chronic lymphocytic leukemia is slow, simple monitoring is often sufficient at the beginning of the disease. At an advanced stage, chemotherapy is often necessary.
Treatment of chronic myeloid leukemia consists of the use of inhibitors. These are tablets that neutralize the proliferation of leukemic cells. This management nevertheless has side effects such as diarrhoea, nausea, cramps or skin irritations.