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Understanding Leukemia and its Symptoms

Leukemia is a cancer of cells in the bone marrow (the cells that develop into blood cells). There are different types of leukemia. If you develop leukemia, it is important that you know exactly what type it is. This is because leukemia symptoms and treatments vary for the different types.

Types of leukemia

Scientists have not yet understood the exact causes of leukemia, but it is thought to occur when some blood cells acquire mutations in their DNA as a result of a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Doctor sclassify leukemia based on its speed of progression and the type of cells involved.

The major types of leukemia are:

  • Acutelymphocytic leukemia (ALL). This is the most common type of leukemia in young children, although it can also occur in adults
  • Acutemyelogenous leukemia (AML). This is another common type of leukemia that occurs in both children and adults
  • Chroniclymphocytic leukemia (CLL). This is the most common chronic leukemia that affects adults. People with CLL may feel well for years without needing any treatment
  • Chronicmyelogenous leukemia (CML). This is a type of chronic leukemia that affects mainly adults, often with few (if any) symptoms for months or even years.

Symptoms of leukemia

The symptoms of leukemia are often vague and not specific. In the early stages of certain types of leukemia, the symptoms resemble those of the flue and other common illnesses like night sweats, fever, fatigue and achiness such that you may overlook them.

You may also overlook these leukemia symptoms because, apart from resembling those of common illnesses, they also develop slowly in some cases. The chronic leukemias (CML and CLL), for example, progress slowly and symptoms worsen much slower than Acute leukemias (AML and ALL).

General symptoms of chronic or acute leukemia, however, include:

  • Pain in the joints or bones
  • Fevers or night sweats
  • Feeling tired or weak
  • Swollen lymph node that usually don’t hurt
  • Swelling or discomfort in the abdomen
  • Bruising or bleeding easily
  • Loss of appetite or weight

Warning signs of leukemia

Because some symptoms of other conditions coincide with the symptoms of leukemia, the following are warning signs that you may have leukemia:

  • Anemia—a low red blood cells count.
  • Leukopenia—a low white blood cell count.
  • Thrombocytopenia—a low blood platelet (the blood cells responsible for blood clotting) count.
  • Swollen lymph nodes—noticeable swelling of the neck, armpit or groin.
  • Enlarged liver or spleen—due to build-up of abnormal blood cells in the liver or spleen.

Make an appointment with your doctor

If you have leukemia symptoms and the signs and symptoms persist such that you worry, make an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible. A blood test may be necessary to detect abnormal cells in the blood and diagnose leukemia.

Only rarely is leukemia discovered during blood tests for other conditions. The good news,howeer, is that once a diagnosis has been made, the outlook for leukemia looks better today than ever before. Treatment has improved greatly over the past 20 years or so.

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