Leukaemia is a relatively common cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow, and causes large increases in the levels of white blood cells in the body. Leukaemia is an umbrella term for several different types of blood and bone cancers including acute leukaemia, chronic leukaemia, lymphocytic leukaemia, and myelogenous leukaemias. There are also some rarer types of leukaemia.
The major symptoms of leukaemia are frequent bruising and excessive bleeding, as well as frequent illness and infection, and anaemia. These symptoms occur due to damage to the bone marrow, as well as to low levels of platelets as a result of high white blood cell counts. Platelets are required to ensure blood clotting, and when there are low levels of platelets in the body, bleeding and bruising is the result. The low red blood cell levels in leukaemia cancer suffers also result in the infections and anaemia highlighted above.
There are several potential causes for leukaemia; these vary depending on the type of leukaemia in question, as well as individually. Leukaemia in adults can be the result of exposure to high levels of radiation, some types of illnesses and viruses, as well as exposure to chemicals such as benzene. Some chemotherapy treatments may also result in the occurrence of leukaemia. Because leukaemia is associated with particular cell mutations, there is also evidence that leukaemia has some genetic component as well, and that those who have certain genetic conditions or abnormalities are more likely to develop leukaemia.
To diagnose leukaemia, a number of tests are usually undertaken. These tests typically involve blood tests, which are used to assess the number of white blood cells in the body. Another common test is a bone marrow test, while a less common type of test involves a biopsy of the lymph nodes in order to find evidence of cancer. However, because the symptoms of leukaemia cancer tend to be fairly non-specific, it is thought that many leukaemia cancer suffers simply go undiagnosed.
The treatment for leukaemia cancers can vary, but most typically involves chemotherapy, although radiation therapy is used in some cases. In cases where leukaemia cancer has damaged the bone marrow, bone marrow transplants may also be used as a treatment. Because of the difficult in diagnosing and treating leukaemia cancers, a number of different approaches are currently being trialled. While some of these are designed to help cure leukaemia cancers, others are designed to improve the quality of life of a leukaemia patient, or to help discourage the cancer from reoccurring. Some alternative therapies may be effective in these instances.