Leukemia is a form of cancer. All cancers are a result of excessive cells being produced somewhere in the body. In the case of leukemia, the blood is the affected body part. Blood cells are produced by bone marrow, a spongy material located in the center of large bones.
Bone marrow contains two types of stem cells, stromal and hematopoietic. Stromal cells become many different tissue types, including nerve tissue, fat, cartilage, and bone. Hematopoietic cells become the three types of blood cells found in the body: red blood cells (erythrocytes), white blood cells (leukocytes), and platelets (thrombocytes).
Red blood cells transport oxygen to all body tissues, platelets are responsible for clotting blood, and white blood cells are a crucial part of the body’s immune system as infection-fighters. When functioning normally, blood cells divide and reproduce themselves in an orderly manner, keeping a proper balance of all types. When a white blood cell mutates and divides, a rapid reproduction of the abnormal cell begins. The abnormal cells increase in number and do not die off at the proper rate of normal white blood cells; this crowds out the other types of cells, causing an imbalance in the blood.
When the production of red blood cells is reduced, the situation becomes anemia, meaning not enough oxygen is getting to the tissues. If not enough platelets are being produced, the patient will bruise easily and cuts will bleed profusely. A lack of healthy white blood cells compromises the immune system and makes the person susceptible to many dangerous health situations; a fatality becomes a possibility with a minor infection.
All leukemias are classified as either acute or chronic. Acute leukemias are aggressive in nature and progress very quickly. It is marked by an abnormal growth of immature cells. Chronic leukemia, in comparison, progresses slowly and is marked by an excessive number of mature cells and a small amount of immature cells (known as “blasts”).
There are several types of white blood cells (leukocytes) circulating through the body, including lymphocytes and myeloctyes.
Lymphocytic (lymphoblastic) leukemia occurs when the malfunctioning cells are lymphocytes. Lymphocytes include T-cells and B-cells. T-lymphocytes are produced in the marrow but mature in the thymus (a gland located in the upper chest cavity.). B-lymphocytes are produced in the bone marrow and also mature there.
Lymph is a clear, watery fluid that contains lymphocytes. It travels along a network of thin tubes that are branched throughout the body via lymph vessels. Lymph nodes are bean-shaped clusters of lymphocytes located in various organs, such as the spleen, abdomen, pelvis, neck, and underarms. In acute leukemias, the developing lymphocytes do not mature, they build up in the lymph nodes, causing them to swell.
Myelocytic leukemia occurs when the abnormal cells are myeloctyes, such as basophils, esoinophils, and neutrophils (all bacteria killers). Myelocytes are also known as granulocytes, and myelocytic leukemia can be referred to as granulocytic leukemia due to the tiny granules that are found inside the cell.
The seven types of leukemia are as follow:
1) Adult Acute Lymphoctyic (Lymphoblastic) Leukemia(Adult ALL) and
2) Childhood Acute Lymphocytic (Lymphoblastic) Leukemia (Childhood ALL):
Both of these are marked by too many immature lymphocytes in both the bone marrow and the blood, and in many cases a decreased amount of platelets. This leukemia has a high success rate for cures and is considered by many to be the easiest to treat. This is the most common childhood cancer, accounting for approximately 85% of the cases.
3) Adult Acute Myeloid Leukemia (Adult AML), known also as Acute Non-Lymphoctyic Leukemia (ANLL) and
4) Childhood Acute Myeloid Leukemia (Childhood AML):
In these forms of leukemia, there are excessive numbers of immature granulocytes (myeloctyes) and they live longer than normal, healthy white blood cells.
5) Chronic Myelogenous (Granuloctyic) Leukemia (CML): Again, there are too many myelocytes that live longer than the normal lifespan and do not grow to maturity. This type of leukemia is different than the others in that the genetic material of the cells has the Philadelphia chromosome. Even when treatment has been completed, this chromosome remains.
6) Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL): This is the most common form of leukemia and tends to affect the portion of the population that is sixty years of age or older. An excessive number of white blood cells are created and they do not mature properly.
7) Hairy-Cell Leukemia (HCL): Under the microscope, the cancer cells of this rare leukemia appear to have hair growing out around their edges. HCL causes low numbers of all the blood cell types and the cancerous cells are found in the bone marrow as well as the blood.
In acute cases, symptoms develop and advance quickly. In chronic cases, the symptoms develop gradually. Extreme fatigue, frequent infections, night sweats, loss of appetite and/or weight, unexplained fevers, and easy bleeding or bruising are common symptoms to all leukemias.
Other symptoms that may be experienced due to the cancerous cells clustering in various body parts might include seizures, headaches, balance problems, muscle spasms, joint pain, bone pain, swelling of the testicles, vision problems, shortness of breath, stomach aches, and painful swelling in lymph node areas, such as the neck, groin, and underarm.
Treatment for leukemia varies based upon, among other things, what type it is, how far along it is, if the patient has other medical conditions that may affect the ability to tolerate the harsh standard treatments of chemotherapy and radiation.
Chemotherapy is the name given to a variety of cancer-fighting drugs. Depending on the medication, it may be given orally (through the mouth), intravenously (through the vein), intrathecally (through the spine), or subcutaneously (in a shot form).
External radiation therapy is the use of high-energy radiation to kill cancer cells. This is frequently used on certain brain areas that are inaccessible to any of the chemotherapy medications. These areas are called “sanctuary sites” and medical science is currently unable to confirm or deny existence the existence of leukemia cells in these areas.
As a leukemia survivor, I can tell you that the treatment felt worse than the original sickness that sent me to the emergency room. But as a survivor I can also say that it’s worth the fight. If you are reading this because you have been diagnosed, my advice to you is to hang in there. Just take it one day at a time, one minute at a time. There will certainly be days when it feels like it’s not worth it, but when you come out on the other side of the long, dark tunnel, it will fade away to a memory in the light of living again.
As for me, they tell me I should have been dead on arrival at the hospital because my blood count was so bad, but by the grace of God, here I am, typing out my story and hoping to encourage someone else.