Leukemia refers to a group of cancerous diseases affecting the white blood cells. There are four different types of leukemia. The statistics about leukemia reveals that this is quite a common disease. The actual cause of leukemia is not known. However, exposures to dangerous chemicals or rays are probably a common factor in the development of the disease. The most common treatment options are chemotherapy and radiation therapy. In some cases, bone marrow transplantation has been found to be useful.

Leukemia is a type of cancer of the blood cells. White blood cells are a component of the blood. They help the body to fight against infections. When a person is infected with leukemia, the DNA in the cells mutate in such a way that a large number of immature white blood cells are produced in the body. These cells are called blasts. Leukemia can affect different cells of the blood and the disease is classified into four types according to the cells they infect. These abnormal cells gradually take over the function of the bone marrow and the disease spreads further.

Types of leukemia and their causes

Type of leukemia Description Causes
Acute lymphocytic lymphoma (ALL) This type of leukemia affects the lymphocytes. A large number of immature lymphocytes are produced and they hinder the functioning of the bone marrow. Though the exact cause is not known, exposure to toxins like benzene and radiation, chemotherapy and chromosomal abnormality can increase the risk of ALL.
Acute mylogenous leukemia (AML) This cancer develops from inside the bone marrow involving immature cells that would have turned to white blood cells. It is caused by exposure to harmful chemicals and rays, blood disorders or weakened immune system. It is most common type and the disease progresses rapidly.
Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) It is a slow increase in lymphocytes affecting the lymph nodes and the spleen. Ultimately it causes the bone marrow to stop functioning. The reason is not known and it is not linked to radiation. However, exposure to Agent Orange during Vietnam war increased the risk of CLL.
Chronic mylogenous leukemia (CML) It is a slow build up of immature white blood cells hampering the function of the bone marrow. CML is related to the presence of an abnormal chromosome called Philadelphia chromosome. Radiation exposure may also be a cause.
Hairy cell leukemia (HCL) This is a rare type of cancer affecting white blood cells. The cells look hairy under a microscope. The cause is unknown.

The following table gives an idea about the prevalence of the disease:

Rate of incidence of leukemia in USA 1 in 8831 persons
Annual rate of incidence of leukemia in USA 30800
New cases of leukemia detected in USA in 2004 Male – 19020
Female – 14420
Estimated number of deaths from leukemia in USA in 2004 Male – 12900
Female – 10310

Mortality rate from leukemia in different countries:

Country Number of deaths per 10000 population
Male Female
USA 6.6 4.2
Australia 5.7 3.8
Canada 6.2 3.9
Germany 5.7 3.9
UK 4.9 3.3

Signs and symptoms of leukemia

The common signs and symptoms of the different types of leukemia are as follows:

  • Leukemia is a cancer that affects the bone marrow. It gradually hampers the proper functioning of the bone marrow. As a result, people with leukemia tend to bruise and bleed easily.
  • White blood cells are the responsible for fighting infection in the body. Leukemia attacks these cells. So, the immune system of the body is weakened. As a result, you become more vulnerable to infections like sore throat, sores in the mouth, diarrhea or pneumonia.
  • Anemia is common in leukemia.
  • Fever, chill, fatigue, flu like symptoms and weight loss are other common symptoms.
  • Some type of leukemia also causes pain in the bones and joints.
  • Other symptoms are loss of appetite, paleness, red spots on skin, swollen glands etc.

Leukemia is diagnosed with a series of tests including complete blood count, platelet count, lumbar puncture and bone marrow aspiration and biopsy. Actually, the signs and symptoms of leukemia are quite vague. As a result, there are many people living with undiagnosed cases of leukemia.

Treatment options for leukemia

Leukemia is treated so that abnormal blood cells are destroyed and normal blood cells are produced in the body. The type of treatment depends on the type of leukemia that you have general physical health, age and the stage of leukemia.

  • Chemotherapy is the most widely used treatment of leukemia. It occurs in following three stages:
    1. Induction is the stage where all abnormal cells are killed off in the blood.
    2. The next stage is consolidation. It destroys those abnormal cells which may be rare enough that they do not show up on regular blood tests.
    3. The third stage is maintenance and is specially used in case of ALL. It prevents the regrowth of any leukemia cells which can lead to the reversal of the recovery process.
    4. If leukemia spreads to the brain or the spinal cord, intrathecal chemotherapy is used where the drug is directly injected in these areas.
  • Radiation therapy is also used to treat leukemia. High dose of direct radiation is aimed at the cancer cells to induce remission.
  • In severe cases, stem cell transplantation is tried. A matched donor is found and the infected bone marrow is completely destroyed. It is then replaced by the healthy stem cells.

Recent researches reveal that certain natural elements may reduce the chances of contracting leukemia or even causing a recession in the progress of the disease. Betacyanins found in beets probably has some leukemia resistant properties. In 1950s, in Hungary, Alexander Ferenczi conducted a study where all patients showed a positive response to beet juice. However, further research is required in this regard.