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Symptoms, risk factors and treatment of leukemia

Leukemia is a cancer that affects the blood-forming cells in the bone marrow and impairs them from performing normal activities in the body. There are two major forms of leukemia -- myelogenous leukemia, which affects myeloid stem cells, and lymphocytic leukemia, which affects lymphoid stem cells.

Of those two groups, there are four additional types -- acute myelogenous leukemia (also known as acute myeloid leukemia), acute lymphocetic leukemia, chronic myelogenous leukemia and chronic lymphocetic leukemia. Acute means the cancer will develop, grow and spread quickly, while chronic means the onset is slow and the cancerous cells accumulate over longer periods.

Leukemia Symptoms

Leukemia symptoms will develop quickly or slowly, depending on the type of cancer. Some of the symptoms may be attributed to a lack of normal blood cells, while others are due to the cancerous cells themselves. Symptoms can arise in a number of areas, such as the lymph nodes, brain, testicles, liver, eyes and more, because the leukemia cells can collect almost anywhere.

Common leukemia symptoms include frequent infections, weight loss, fatigue, unusual bleeding or bruising, pain in joints, nausea or vomiting, blurred vision, seizures, shortness of breath and many more.

Leukemia Risk Factors

Some risk factors for leukemia, such as smoking, family history and exposure to toxins, are common amongst most types of cancer. Other more specific risk factors for leukemia include:

  • Previously having chemotherapy
  • Myelodysplastic syndromes (blood disorders)
  • Genetic diseases, such as Down syndrome

Leukemia Treatment

Leukemia treatment will depend on the type and severity of the leukemia, as well as on the overall health and age of the patient. Treatment will involve two parts -- treating the disease itself and working to manage the symptoms.

Treatment of the disease will generally involve chemotherapy to kill the leukemia cells in the blood. The chemotherapy may be given orally or by IV. In rare cases where the leukemia cells are in the spinal fluid, chemo will be administered directly into the spinal canal.

Radiation may also be used to treat some types of leukemia, though it is less common. A variety of medications and therapies may also be prescribed to help bolster the immune system and manage symptoms such as nausea and pain.

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