Unlike other forms of cancer, leukemia is not something that can be removed from the body, but instead has to be treated as a disease process. The type of treatments a leukemia patient receives depends on factors such as age and health, as well as what form of leukemia the patient has and if it has spread to other areas of the body. Leukemia is a cancer of blood forming tissues in the human body such as bone marrow or the lymphatic system, and typically forms in the white blood cells.
White blood cells are the body's defense against infection, and those suffering from leukemia have bone marrow that grows large amounts of abnormal white blood cells that do not function correctly. There are different forms of leukemia, and symptoms also vary between chills, loss of weight or appetite, swollen lymph nodes, bone pain, easy bruising and frequent infections. Depending on the amount of abnormal blood cells within the body, the symptoms range in severity, and many people mistake early signs of leukemia for the common flu or other virus. Leukemia progression ranges from acute, where the disease progressive very quickly and chronic, where the blood cells accumulate more slowly and may take longer to be recognized as leukemia.
Leukemia is classified based on what type of blood cell is affected. In lymphocytic leukemia, the disease affects the lymphoid cells that make up lymphatic tissue. These tissues are vital for the immune systems, and are located throughout the body, such as in the lymph nodes and spleen. Myelogenous leukemia affects the myeloid cells, which later develop into red and white blood cells and platelet-producing cells.
Even though researchers have not determined an exact reason for the development of the disease, there are many factors that can place an individual at risk for getting some forms of leukemia, including cancer therapy, genetics and exposure to radiation.
If a patient is suffering from a variety of symptoms that describe leukemia, there are numerous tests that can be done to diagnose the condition, including a physical exam. In addition, blood work is performed to check white blood cell counts, and immunophenotype to check lymph nodes and bone marrow samples to look for leukemia cells within the bone.
Once a doctor has seen signs of leukemia, he or she may refer a patient to a cancer specialist or hematologist (blood specialist) to determine the type and stage of leukemia. As with many cancers, leukemia treatments also respond to chemotherapy, which uses medication to kill cancerous cells, and radiation therapy to damage leukemia cells and stop growth, but there are many other treatments as well. Bone marrow transplants are used to remove marrow containing leukemia with healthy marrow, and stem cell treatments are also being used to transplant into patients, either from their own blood supply or that of a compatible donor. Today, stem cell transplants are more frequently used over bone marrow transplants, because recovery time is shorter and there are fewer risks for infection and side effects.
Many patients suffering from leukemia also opt to enroll in clinical trials that test new combinations of existing drugs, or new drugs that may help destroy leukemia and promote remission.
Even though a diagnosis of leukemia can be devastating, there are many ways today to make treatment and life easier, including strong support systems with family or groups, eating and exercising well, and getting the right treatment. A variety of treatments such as those listed above are often suggested to patients, and many treatments today offer benefits without the risks of 'yesterday's' medicines and treatment procedures.
Choosing a doctor who specializes in leukemia is important in obtaining adequate medical attention. Be sure to get a second opinion before surgeries or undergo expensive cancer treatments, and check qualifications of cancer treatment facilities to ensure they are accredited by state or national accreditation organizations. Make sure staff are trained, certified and up to date on the most recent treatments and procedures and locate medical facilities that have the most current medical technology and equipment for the treatment of leukemia.
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