What is leukemia?
Leukemia is a cancer which starts in blood-forming tissue, usually the bone marrow. It leads to the over-production of abnormal white blood cells, the part of the immune system which defends the body against infection.
Leukemia affects white blood cells and can be classified by the type of white cell affected (myeloid or lymphatic) and by the way the disease progresses (acute or chronic). Acute and chronic do not refer to how serious the disease is but to how rapidly it progresses. Acute leukemia progresses rapidly unless effectively treated, but it can sometimes be cured with standard treatments, such as bone marrow transplants. Chronic leukemia progresses slowly and although it is not usually possible to cure chronic leukemia with standard treatments, it can be treated and managed as a long-term condition.
In all types of leukemia, symptoms are more commonly caused by lack of normal blood cells than by the presence of abnormal white cells. As the bone marrow becomes full of leukemia cells, it is unable to produce the large numbers of normal blood cells which the body needs.
Signs and Symptoms
While there are numerous signs and symptoms associated with leukemia, they are non-specific and can be associated with other health problems. Although a doctor may suspect a patient has leukemia, based on signs and symptoms, it can only be diagnosed by laboratory tests.
It’s important to be aware of the leukemia symptoms and recognise what isn’t normal for your body, even if you aren’t sure what is wrong with you. If you or someone you know are concerned about potential symptoms, seek help from a healthcare professional.
The most common symptoms experienced by leukemia patients include:
• Shortness of breath
• Fever or night sweats
• Bruising or bleeding
• Bone/joint pain
• Repeated infections
Other less frequently experienced symptoms of leukemia are:
• swollen lymph nodes
• stomach discomfort
• nausea or vomiting
• numbness in hands or feet
• heart palpitations
• loss of concentration
• sleeping problems
• muscle pain
• back pain
• itchy skin
• weight loss
When should I be concerned?
If you are displaying more than one of the above symptoms, it’s important to seek help. Since the symptoms are common to other unrelated illnesses, it is unlikely that leukemia will be the cause, however, it is for this exact reason that leukemia can be hard to spot, as the signs and symptoms are so easily misdiagnosed. Seeking help as soon as possible can be crucial for either ruling leukemia out or getting an early diagnosis.
Finding out more and accessing support
If you want to find out more, or need more information on support after a leukemia diagnosis, please click here.