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What is leukaemia?

Leukaemia is a type of cancer of the blood and/ or bone marrow that develops when the bone marrow starts to make an abnormal amount of immature white blood cells called leukaemia cells or blasts. These immature cells cannot fight infections the way healthy white blood cells fight and they crowd out the other blood cells. Eventually, there aren’t enough red blood cells to supply oxygen, or enough platelets to clot blood, or enough normal white blood cells to fight infection. And this starts to affect the way our major organs functions.

What are the various types of leukaemia?

Leukaemia is grouped in two ways:

  • How fast it develops and gets worse – Acute or Chronic
  • Which type of blood cells are affected – Myeloid or Lymphoid

Acute Leukaemia gets bad very fast and happens when most of the abnormal white blood cells stay immature and cannot carry on their normal functions; whereas Chronic Leukaemia gets bad slowly as the abnormal white blood cells co-exist with the normal white blood cells.

There are four main types of Leukaemia:

  • Acute Lymphocytic Leukaemia (ALL)
  • Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML)
  • Chronic Lymphocytic Leukaemia (CLL)
  • Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia (CML)
Acute Acute lymphocytic leukaemia:
- Most common form of leukaemia in children aged 3- to 7- years.
Acute myeloid leukaemia
- Occurs in adults and in children less than a year old
Chronic Chronic lymphocytic leukaemia
- The commonest variety of leukaemia and occurs mostly in people over the age of 50
Chronic myeloid leukaemia
- Commonly occurs in people between the ages of 35 and 60.
- Lymphoid Myeloid

What are the symptoms of leukaemia?

Many types of Leukaemia produce no obvious symptoms in the early stages, however, symptoms develop and may include the following:

  • Anaemia and related symptoms such as fatigue, pale skin, and a general feeling of illness
  • Tendency to bruise or bleed easily, including bleeding from the gums or nose or blood in the stool or urine
  • Sensitive to infections such as sore throat or pneumonia, and could be accompanied by headache, low-grade fever, mouth sores or skin rashes
  • Swollen lymph nodes, typically in the throat, armpit or groin
  • Loss of appetite and weight
  • Discomfort under the left lower ribs caused by a swollen spleen

How is leukaemia diagnosed?

Since Leukaemia shows no obvious symptoms in the early stages of the disease, it can be detected incidentally either during a physical exam or a routine blood testing.

Your doctor should suspect Leukaemia if a person shows any of the above-mentioned symptoms, however, to confirm the diagnosis and identify the specific type of Leukaemia, a needle biopsy and an aspiration of the bone marrow from a pelvic bone should be done. This is done to test for presence of Leukaemic Cells. Special tests are done on the sample collected to determine the type of leukaemia and the genetic mutations associated with it to help determine the treatment strategy and prognosis.

What is the treatment procedure?

The treatment of Leukaemia largely depends on the type of leukaemia, the stage of the disease or how far it has spread and the overall health of the patient. However, the main options are:

  • Chemotherapy – It uses drugs to kill cancer cells in the blood & bone marrow and is administered either through an injection or as a pill
  • Radiation – It uses high-energy X-rays to either kill leukaemia cells or stop them from growing
  • Biologic Therapy – Also known as immunotherapy, it helps the immune system find and attack cancer cells
  • Targeted Therapy – It uses drugs to block specific genes or proteins that cancer cells need to grow
  • Stem Cell or Bone Marrow Transplant (BMT) – It replaces the leukaemic cells in the bone marrow with new ones that make blood.
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