The term leukemia, which means “white blood” in Greek, describes a wide spectrum of cancers that arise in the blood and/or bone marrow. Leukemia causes cells of the blood and/or bone marrow to divide unnaturally and function improperly. You can read about the symptoms of leukemia, stages of leukemia, methods of treating leukemia, or visit The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society for more information.
There are three types of blood cells in the human body, each of which can be affected by leukemia:
- Leukocytes (White Blood Cells): White blood cells are an important part of the body’s immune system. Their primary function is to help fight infection and heal wounds. Leukemia typically originates in the white blood cells.
- Erythrocytes (Red Blood): Red blood cells carry oxygen to, and remove carbon dioxide from tissues throughout the body.
- Platelets: The primary function of a platelet is to form clots in damaged blood vessels. Blood clots prevent bleeding.
Acute leukemia describes the rapid overproduction of immature blood cells. This overproduction of cells clogs the bone marrow, resulting in an impaired ability to produce healthy blood cells. Acute forms of leukemia necessitate immediate treatment. If the disease is not treated immediately, cancer cells will invade the blood stream, after which they will spread to other structures in the body. Acute forms of leukemia affect children more than any other form of leukemia.
Chronic Leukemia: Chronic leukemia causes the overproduction of mature blood cells. Chronic forms of leukemia can take months, or even years to progress, and typically occur in older people.
Leukemia Risk Factors
The cause of leukemia remains unclear. Like most cancers, a variety of genetic and environmental stimuli seem to play a role in the development of leukemia. Leukemia’s risk factors include:
- Genetic Predisposition: Certain genetic abnormalities have been linked to leukemia development. Down syndrome in particular has been linked to the onset of leukemia.
- Previous Cancer Treatments: If you’ve been treated with radiation or certain types of chemotherapeutic drugs, you are more likely to develop leukemia. Radiation causes cellular DNA mutations, some of which are responsible for the onset of leukemia.
- Radiation Exposure: If you have been exposed to extreme amounts of radiation, or are regularly exposed to moderate amounts of radiation, you are more likely to develop leukemia. Certain industries expose their workers to high amounts of radiation, underlining the importance of understanding your workplace’s health hazards.
The outlook (prognosis) for leukemia patients varies widely, and depends greatly on the time of diagnosis, the overall health of the patient, and the patient’s age. Generally, a good prognosis favors young, healthy patients whose leukemia is diagnosed early. Read more about Leukemia in children.
Patients with chronic leukemia survive an average of 9 years after diagnosis. Contrastingly, 50% of acute leukemia patients survive for 5 years after diagnosis.
More and more surgeons are becoming familiar with bone marrow transplant procedures, resulting in ever-increasing rates of survival. Furthermore, leukemia is the target of ongoing cancer research, which will inevitably yield more effective treatment options in the near future.
Since the cause of leukemia remains unknown, it is difficult to identify preventative factors. If materials and/or devices at your workplace emit radiation, ask your employer how you can reduce your exposure to the harmful properties of radiation.