Warning signs of leukemia

September 30, 2020 | by Edward-Elmhurst Health

Leukemia is a type of cancer that forms in the blood cells and bone marrow.

An estimated 60,530 cases of leukemia will be diagnosed this year, making it one of the 10 most common forms of a non-skin cancer.

For children under age 15, leukemia is the most common form of cancer. In adults, leukemia is most likely to occur in those older than 55.

Leukemia typically forms in the white blood cells, which help fight infection. The cancerous cells grow in number and crowd out the number of healthy blood cells, making it difficult to get oxygen to the blood, control bleeding and fight infection.

Though there are various types of leukemia, they are often divided into two forms — chronic or acute. Acute leukemia develops quickly and may prompt a sudden onset of symptoms. Chronic leukemia develops over time. Symptoms may appear to be non-specific changes in overall health (such as feeling tired more often or increased weakness).

Leukemia can affect the amount of red or white blood cells and your platelet count. Changes in those numbers will show up on routine blood tests, which sometimes are the first hint in a diagnosis for leukemia.

  • Red blood cells carry oxygen. Some symptoms that may arise from a decrease in the number of red blood cells include fatigue, feeling cold, dizziness, headaches, pale skin and shortness of breath.
  • A decrease in the amount of platelets, which help stop bleeding, can result in bruises, frequent nosebleeds, bleeding gums and heavy menstrual cycles.
  • White blood cells help fight infection. A decrease in the amount of white blood cells can lead to frequent infections.

Some other general symptoms of leukemia may include:

  • Weight loss
  • Enlarged liver or spleen
  • Abdominal discomfort
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Tiny red spots on your skin also known as petechiae
  • Excessive sweating, particularly at night
  • Bone pain or tenderness

Though doctors aren’t certain of the exact cause of leukemia there are certain factors that may put you at higher risk, including:

  • Some forms of chemotherapy
  • Certain genetic disorders, such as Down syndrome
  • Family history of leukemia
  • Smoking
  • Exposure to certain chemicals, such as benzene

In addition to routine blood tests, your doctor may order other diagnostic tests, such as a bone marrow test. Treatment for leukemia can include cancer-fighting drugs, chemotherapy, radiation or a stem cell transplant.

Edward-Elmhurst Health offers three state-of-the art cancer centers in Naperville, Elmhurst and Plainfield, each with expert care teams that focus on your individual physical and emotional needs. Learn more.

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