Leukemia refers to an abnormal increase in the number of white blood cells of the body. The normal role of white blood cells in the body is to help fight infection. However, as the rate of white blood cell production in the body rises, more and more numbers of immature cells are released into the blood stream. These cells are extremely ineffective in fighting infections.
The bone marrow, where these blood cells are produced, also is unable to produce the correct number of red blood cells and platelets. Thus, there is also a shortage of red blood cells leading to anemia and lack of platelets leading to increased bleeding times.
This situation is extremely serious and requires immediate intervention.
Leukemia can be acute or chronic depending upon the rate of progress of the disease. They can also be further classified into myeloid or lymphoid depending upon the kind of subpopulation of white blood cells found in the blood.
How Is Leukemia Caused?
The exact causative factors for the occurrence of leukemia remain unknown. It is believed to develop due to a chromosomal disorder. One abnormality in particular, known as the Philadelphia Chromosome is found in almost every person suffering from chronic myeloid leukemia and in a fairly large percentage of people suffering from acute leukemia’s as well.
There are some other factors that are believed to play a role. These include some environmental factors like smoking, exposure to radiation and harmful chemicals and genetic factors like Down syndrome, Bloom syndrome, HIV and some others.
While a family history of leukemia increases the likelihood of developing the disease, the chromosomal disorder is neither inherited nor passed onto further generations. The mutation probably occurs due to exposure to the above mentioned risk factors.
Different modes of treatment are followed for acute and chronic forms of leukemia.
Chronic leukemias are usually treated with a combination of radiotherapy and chemotherapy. The idea is to get rid of the rapidly dividing white blood cells in the body while keeping the normal cells of the body healthy. This is a delicate process and may require some fine tuning of dosages.
There also may be more than one therapeutic cycle that needs to be followed in case the disease does not respond as expected or returns after some time. Getting a stem cell transplant is also an option. An important part of the treatment is making sure that the patient does not fall prey to other opportunistic infections. The immune system of the body is extremely compromised and so even a minor infection or injury can become life threatening.
Acute leukemias are treated in three stages. The first usually involves chemotherapy to induce a cessation of the rapidly dividing cells, followed by a stage of radiation or another bout of chemotherapy and then the last stage of maintenance therapy. This last stage involves a combination of long-term intravenous chemotherapy or oral chemotherapy.
When Is Leukemia Considered ‘Treated’ Or ‘Cured’?
According to the latest classifications, if there are no symptoms or signs of leukemia in children or adults for 5 years after finishing active treatment, the disease is considered treated or cured.
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