Leukemia is a type of cancer that starts in the blood cells. The term “leukemia” is derived from the Greek words “leukos” meaning white” and “haima” meaning blood. Blood contains three types of cells.
The blood cells are formed in the bone marrow by the stem cells. Bone marrow is the soft material present inside the center of the bones. Stem cells are undifferentiated cells, which can divide and grow to form the different types of blood cells. The old and damaged blood cells die and are replaced by new cells. The rate at which the blood cells are formed from stem cells depends on the need of the body.
In leukemia, the regulated and well controlled formation of white blood cells from bone marrow is disturbed; this causes the stem cells to make abnormal white blood cells: the leukemia cells. Unlike the healthy white blood cells, leukemia cells don't function appropriately (protect against infections) and do not die when they should. When more than required white blood cells are formed, they crowd out normal white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets and thereby, prevent their effective functioning; this makes people with leukemia vulnerable to the development of symptoms such as infections, anemia and bleeding. Other symptoms and signs of leukemia include easy bruising, weight loss, night sweats and unexplained fever.
The exact cause of leukemia is not understood, but many factors are known to increase the risk of leukemia. Some factors that increase the risk of leukemia are:
There are several types of leukemia. They are classified on the basis of how quickly the disease progresses and the type of blood cell that is affected (lymphocytes or myelocytes). Based on the progress of the disease, leukemia is classified either as:
The four major types of leukemia are:
If leukemia is suspected, your doctor will take a sample of your blood and bone marrow. These samples are examined under a microscope for abnormal blood cells. Treatment for leukemia is decided based on factors such as type of leukemia, characteristic of the leukemia cells, the extent of the disease, and prior history of treatment, age and health of the patient. Advances in the treatment of the disease have improved the prognosis considerably.
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