Blood Cancer or Leukemia is a type of cancer which affects the blood cells. It is the most common cancer in children.
Cells are the building blocks of the body, which normally repair and reproduce in a controlled process. With cancer, the cells divide and grow in an uncontrolled way.
The body is made up of many different types of cells, such as skin, nerve, muscle and blood cells. With blood cancer or leukemia, it is white blood cells that are affected.
In blood cancer or leukemia, the bone marrow starts making too many white blood cells, and sometimes these cells don’t work right. These cells keep growing when they are supposed to stop. They also grow faster than the other cells. Over time, these abnormal cells crowd out the normal white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets.
These WBC (White Blood Cells) pass from the bone marrow into the blood stream and lymph system. White blood cells are involved in various functions of the immune system (the body’s defense system), which protects the body from infections. In blood cancer, some blood cells do not grow properly, but remain within the bone marrow and continue to reproduce in an uncontrolled way.
These cells fill up the bone marrow and prevent it from making healthy white blood cells. This means the body is less able to fight off infections.
The bone marrow is also able to make other types of blood cells, such as red blood cells and platelets. Problems can result from a reduction in number of these cells. For example, a lack of red blood cells leads to anaemia, which can result in breathlessness and fatigue. A lack of platelets can lead to problems with the blood-clotting system, resulting in bruising.
Causes of Blood Cancer
Experts do not know what causes blood cancer. They do not always know why some people get it and others do not.
Research has shown that some people may be more likely to get blood cancer. A risk factor is anything that raises the chance of getting a disease.
Blood cancer risk factors include chemotherapy treatment, being exposed to large amounts of radiation or some chemicals in the workplace, and smoking and tobacco use.
Most people who get blood cancer or leukemia do not have any risk factors. Blood Cancer does not usually run in families. But in very rare cases this can happen with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL).
Blood Cancer Symptoms
- Weakness and fatigue.
- Malaise (vague feeling of bodily discomfort)
- Abnormal bleeding
- Bruising of the skin and bleeding from the gums or rectum.
- Reduced exercise tolerance
- Decreased appetite and weight loss
- Bone or joint pain
- Infection and fever
- Night sweats.
- Abdominal pain or “fullness”
- Enlarged spleen, lymph nodes, and liver
- Frequent or unusual infections.
- Swelling in the belly or pain on the left side of the belly or in the left shoulder from a swollen spleen.
- Swollen lymph nodes in the armpit, neck, or groin.
The chronic blood cancer often causes no symptoms until much later in the disease. In fact, nearly one in five chronic leukemia patients have no symptoms at the time of their diagnosis. Most symptoms of acute leukemia are caused by a lack of normal blood cells. This is due to overcrowding of the blood-forming bone marrow by leukemia cells.
Blood Cancer Treatment
The goal of blood cancer treatment or leukemia treatment is to destroy the leukemia cells and allow normal cells to form in your bone marrow.
Treatment decisions are based on the type of leukemia one has, its stage, and person age and general health.
Surgery for Blood Cancer
Surgery does not play a major role in the management of blood cancer or leukemia. The reasons for this are:
- Blood Cancer or Leukemia cells usually are widespread throughout the body at the time of diagnosis, so they cannot be “cut out” like other forms of cancer and
- Surgery is not needed for diagnosis, since bone marrow aspiration usually is adequate to confirm the disease.
An insertion of a venous access device which is a plastic tube that is surgically implanted into a large vein in the chest or upper arm is done to reduce the need for repeated needle sticks during drug injections or removal of blood samples. Also splenectomy (removal of the spleen) may be the only surgical procedure performed during the treatment of blood cancer.
Spleen is an organ which normally helps to filter out old and damaged blood cells from the circulation. If blood cancer causes substantial spleen enlargement then it may press upon other organs and cause abdominal symptoms. Also it may cause a shortage of red blood cells or platelets.
Therefore, surgical removal of the spleen is a form of therapy that may improve symptoms and blood profiles in some blood cancer patients, such as individuals with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) or hairy cell leukemia. The primary danger of splenectomy, especially in people with compromised immune systems, is infection in the blood or tissues (sepsis).
Radiation therapy for Blood Cancer
Radiation therapy is a process to destroy cancer cells and shrink tumors. Radiation can be applied to one area or to the whole body. Sometimes it is used to treat leukemia that has spread to the brain and central nervous system or to prevent this spread. It may also be used to shrink swollen lymph nodes, or to prepare the body for a bone marrow transplant.
Chemotherapy for Blood Cancer
Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to fight cancer. It is the usual treatment for acute blood cancer or leukemia. For most people, that means receiving drugs in three stages:
- Induction: The goal of this stage is remission. Remission is a period in which the leukemia cells have been destroyed and are replaced with healthy cells. It is done with high doses of powerful drugs given over 7 to 10 days. Then it takes several weeks for your body to start growing new blood cells. You probably will stay in the hospital during this time.
- Consolidation: Even when tests show no leukemia cells, there may be still some in the blood. The goal of consolidation is to kill any cells that are left behind. This process often involves the same drugs given in the induction stage, but the schedule and doses may be different.
- Maintenance: The goal of this stage is to prevent blood cancer cells from growing back. During maintenance lower doses of drugs over the course of 2 to 3 years are given. Sometimes this stage includes a bone marrow transplant.
Stem Cell Transplants for Blood Cancer
Transplants usually come from bone marrow or from blood. Some transplants are autologous, meaning the stem cells come from the same body. Some transplants are allogeneic, meaning the stem cells are donated by someone else. The goal of a transplant is to destroy all the cells in the bone marrow, including the blood cancer cells, and replace them with new, normal cells.