Frequently Asked Questions About Leukemia

Listed below are some frequently asked questions about leukemia.

Q: What is leukemia?

A: Leukemia is cancer of the white blood cells. When a person has leukemia, the body makes too many blood cells, and they aren’t normal. Most of the abnormal cells are white blood cells. Two types of abnormal white blood cells can turn into leukemia. They are the lymphoid cells and the myeloid cells. When leukemia is in the lymphoid cells, it is called lymphocytic leukemia. When it is in the myeloid cells, it is called myeloid (or myelogenous) leukemia. Leukemia cells can travel with the blood all over the body. That means they can reach almost any organ. Therefore, leukemia can be present in many different ways, depending on which organs are involved.

Q: What are normal blood cells, and what do they do?

A: Blood has several parts.

The liquid part is called plasma. Blood cells are made in the soft center of bones, which is called bone marrow. There are 3 kinds of cells in blood. They are white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. Each kind of cell has a special task. Less mature forms of new blood cells are called blasts. As cells mature in the bone marrow, they become smaller and more compact. They are better able to perform their special job. Some new blood cells stay in the bone marrow to grow. Some move to other parts of the body to grow. Your body produces blood cells at a faster rate when your body needs them. This process helps you stay healthy. It helps to understand the role of each kind of blood cell.

  • White blood cells help the body fight infection. If you have a bacterial infection, your body produces larger numbers of white blood cells to help fight the infection. But if your white blood cell count is too low, your risk for infection increases.

  • Red blood cells give your blood its color. They carry oxygen from your lungs to your tissues. They also take carbon dioxide from your tissues to your lungs. When you don’t have enough red blood cells, other cells may not get enough oxygen. This can cause fatigue, dizziness, weakness, headaches, and irritability.

  • Platelets help form blood clots and control bleeding. If your number of platelets is abnormally low, it may lead to excessive bleeding from wounds or in mucous membranes.

Q: Can leukemia be prevented?

A: For many types of cancer, certain things make you more likely to get it. These are known as risk factors. So changing your lifestyle to avoid those risks can decrease your chance of getting the disease. But most people with leukemia have no known risk factors. There is no absolute way to prevent leukemia. Smoking has been associated with an increased risk of developing acute myeloid leukemia (AML). So stopping smoking may lower your risk of developing leukemia. Quitting smoking also decreases the risks of getting lung, head, neck, esophagus, stomach, bladder, and some other cancers.

Q:What are the symptoms of leukemia?

A: People with leukemia do not have enough healthy blood cells. They may not have enough red blood cells to carry oxygen through the body. This may cause them to look pale and feel weak and tired. People who do not have a lot of platelets may bruise and bleed very easily. And a lack of healthy white blood cells may lead to infections that don’t go away. However, some people with chronic types of leukemia may not have any symptoms.

These are other common symptoms of leukemia.

  • Fever with chills and sweating, which is a sign of infection

  • Weakness or fatigue, which can be signs of anemia

  • Tiny red spots and bruises under the skin

  • Sore or bleeding gums

  • Swollen lymph nodes, liver, or spleen

  • Pain in the bones or joints

  • Cough, shortness of breath, and pains in the chest

See a doctor if these symptoms persist. These symptoms are not specific to leukemia. Special tests of your blood and bone marrow are needed to confirm a diagnosis of leukemia.

Q: What’s the difference between chronic and acute leukemia?

A: Leukemia is grouped in two ways. It may be acute or chronic, depending upon how fast the cells grow and progress to more advanced phases of the disease and how much the leukemia cells resemble normal cells. The disease is also lymphoid or myeloid, depending upon the type of white blood cell that has turned into cancer. Here is more information about acute and chronic types of leukemia:

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