What is Leukemia? What Survivors Should Know?

luke-testiLeukemia is a cancer of the blood cells. It is the most common type of blood cancer and affects 10 times as many adults as children. Most people diagnosed with leukemia are over 50 years old.

Leukemia Starts in Bone Marrow

Leukemia usually begins in the bone marrow, the soft material in the center of most bones where blood cells are formed. The bone marrow makes three types of blood cells, and each type has a special function.

  • White blood cells fight infection and disease.
  • Red blood cells carry oxygen throughout the body.
  • Platelets help control bleeding by forming blood clots.

In people with leukemia, the bone marrow produces abnormal white blood cells, called leukemia cells. At first, leukemia cells function almost normally. But over time, as more leukemia cells are produced, they may crowd out the healthy white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. This makes it difficult for the blood to carry out its normal functions.

There are four common types of adult leukemia. Two are chronic, meaning they get worse over a longer period of time. The other two are acute, meaning they get worse quickly.

  • chronic lymphocytic leukemia
  • chronic myeloid leukemia
  • acute myeloid leukemia
  • acute lymphocytic leukemia

Chronic and Acute Leukemia

Chronic lymphocytic leukemia, chronic myeloid leukemia, and acute myeloid leukemia are diagnosed more often in older adults. Of these, chronic lymphocytic leukemia is the most common. Acute lymphocytic leukemia is found more often in children.

The symptoms for each type of leukemia differ but may include fevers, frequent infections, fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, weight loss, and bleeding and bruising easily. However, such symptoms are not sure signs of leukemia. An infection or another problem also could cause these symptoms. Only a doctor can diagnose and treat the problem.

(Watch the video to learn how the rates of leukemia diagnosis vary by age. To enlarge the video, click the brackets in the lower right-hand corner. To reduce the video, press the Escape (Esc) button on your keyboard.)

Other Cancers That Affect Blood Cells

Myeloma and lymphoma are other types of cancer that affect blood cells, but these cancer cells are rarely found in the blood stream. Myeloma is the second most common form of blood cancer, and it affects plasma cells, a type of white blood cell that is found in the bone marrow. Lymphoma accounts for about five percent of all the types of cancer in the United States. It starts in the lymphatic system, which is part of the body’s immune system. Both myeloma and lymphoma are more common among older adults and occur more often in men than women.

Many Treatments Are Available

There are many methods available to treat acute and chronic leukemia. They include chemotherapy, biological therapy, or stem cell transplantation. Some people receive a combination of treatments. Acute leukemia usually needs to be treated right away. But there are many different kinds of acute leukemia. Some respond well to treatment and can be cured in some cases, while others are more difficult to treat. Treatment for chronic leukemia can often control the disease and its symptoms, but it can seldom cure the disease. However, there are several treatments now available for chronic myeloid leukemia that can control the disease for a long time.

What Survivors Should Know (FAQs)

A leukemia survivor is someone who has completed treatment for his or her leukemia and is considered to be in remission. You can be a survivor if you completed your treatment decades ago, or just a few years ago.

If I’m a survivor, why do I need to keep thinking about my leukemia?

Even if you’re in remission, the effects of your leukemia and your leukemia treatment can last for many years. For instance, a growing number of studies show that the treatments you received as part of your leukemia therapy can lead to health problems later in life. These “late effects” can occur in pediatric and adult leukemia survivors. The Long Term Follow-Up Study, a major national study of childhood cancer survivors, recently found that that the health problems of these survivors increased steadily over time, even 30 years after their treatment.

What’s a late effect?

A late effect is any effect—from infertility to poor study skills to denial of health insurance—that occurs as a result of your leukemia or leukemia treatment. They are called late effects because they affect your health after your cancer treatment is completed.

What are some of the most common late effects among leukemia survivors?

Leukemia survivors may experience chronic heart conditions, lung disease, liver disease, fertility issues, reduced bone density and muscle strength, subsequent cancers, brain and nerve dysfunction, and fatigue. Survivors may also experience learning disabilities, poor work performance, psychological distress and health insurance discrimination. You can learn more about these late effects, and their links to different types of leukemia and their treatments, at the Leukemia Late Effects Tracker

Does every survivor experience late effects?

Not all leukemia survivors will experience late effects. But a 2003 study of all cancer survivors found that two-thirds of patients who received chemotherapy or radiation had at least one physical, psychological or social late effect at least five years after their cancer was diagnosed. One-quarter of cancer survivors experience a late effect that is life-threatening. I’m an adult leukemia survivor.

Will my late effects be different from those in pediatric survivors?

Pediatric and adult leukemia survivors can share many of the same late effects, depending on their leukemia type and treatment. But there are some late effects—the “chemo brain” that makes it difficult to concentrate in class, for instance—that may be more important for children and young adults. Other late effects, such as infertility, could be more important to adult survivors.

Reference: Canadian Cancer Society / NIH Senior Health