Blood cancers affect the production and function of your blood cells. Most of these cancers start in your bone marrow where blood is produced. Cancerous blood cells prevent your body from fighting off infections or preventing serious bleeding. Common blood cancers are leukemia and myelodysplastic syndrome. They are discussed below.
What is leukemia?
Leukemia is cancer that starts in the blood-forming cells of the bone marrow. Leukemia affects white blood cells, which help fight infection when functioning properly. Leukemia leads to production of abnormal white blood cells, which eventually outnumber the amount of healthy cells. This affects the blood's ability to do its jobs - delivering oxygen throughout the body, controlling bleeding and fighting infection.
What are the different types of leukemia?
Leukemia is typically classified as either acute or chronic. Chronic leukemia develops slowly, while acute leukemia develops very quickly. A patient with acute leukemia may start to show symptoms before being diagnosed, while the first sign of chronic leukemia is usually an abnormal blood test. Leukemia is also classified by the type of cells in which the cancer started. Myeloid leukemia develops in the myeloid cells; lymphoid leukemia begins in the lymphoid cells. The four most common types of leukemia are:
- Acute myeloid leukemia (AML)
- Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL)
- Chronic myeloid leukemia (CML)
- Chronic lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL)
What are the differences between acute and chronic leukemia?
Both types of leukemia are different and require different treatments. One of the main differences between acute and chronic leukemia is the rate of progression of the disease.
In acute leukemia, the blood cells in the bone marrow cannot mature properly. These immature cells are produced rapidly and continue to reproduce causing a variety of symptoms. As a result, this disease is aggressive and worsens quickly. Patients with acute leukemia are treated in the Malignant Hematology & Transplant Clinic.
In chronic leukemia, the cells can mature partly but not completely. These abnormal cells reproduce at a slow rate. It can take a long time for the disease to advance and produce complications.
What are the symptoms of leukemia?
The symptoms of leukemia vary depending on the type of leukemia and on the patient. Symptoms are commonly overlooked, as they are often vague and may depict other minor illnesses. Common symptoms may include:
- Fatigue or feeling of weakness
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Tender abdomen, as a result of a swollen liver or spleen
- Weight loss
- Bruising/bleeding easily
- Painful bones or joints
If symptoms indicate that leukemia may be a potential diagnosis, a doctor will perform a series of tests that may include a physical exam, blood test or biopsy. Further testing may be necessary to confirm a diagnosis.
What are the causes and risk factors of leukemia?
Leukemia forms when a genetic mutation is found in the DNA of blood cells. The exact cause of the mutation remains unknown at this time, although it is believed to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Risk factors may include:
- Family history of leukemia
- Treatment for past cancer
- Genetic abnormalities
- Blood disorders
- Radiation exposure
- Chemical exposure
How is leukemia treated?
Treatment for leukemia varies depending on the type and stage of leukemia, as well as the patient's age and overall health.
What is myelodysplastic syndrome?
Myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) is a bone marrow disorder which can lead to acute leukemia. Blood cells in the bone marrow do not mature or become healthy blood cells. This means that there are not enough normal blood cells in your bone marrow which can lead to infection, anemia or easy bleeding. Most patients that acquire MDS are older, usually past age 65; however, it may affect younger patients as well.
What are the symptoms of MDS?
Failure of the bone marrow to produce mature healthy cells can be gradual process; therefore, symptoms may not be present early in the disease. Common symptoms may include:
- Fatigue or weakness
- Shortness of breath
- Easy bruising or bleeding
- Frequent infections
If symptoms indicate that MDS may be a potential diagnosis, a doctor will perform a series of tests that may include a physical exam, blood test or biopsy. Further testing may be necessary to confirm a diagnosis.
How is MDS treated?
Treatment for MDS varies depending on the type, as well as the patient's age and overall health. Recommended care plans may include various therapies, including chemotherapy and/or a stem cell transplant.
Your doctor will decide on a treatment for your myelodysplastic syndrome that depends on the type of MDS you have and how severe it is. You and your doctor may just take a watchful waiting approach. Your doctor might just want to do regular check-ups if your symptoms are mild and your blood counts are holding up OK.