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Leukemia - Symptom, Treatment And Causes

Last Updated: Jun 18, 2021

What is Leukemia?

Blood cell cancer is also called leukemia. Blood cells have broad categories and include, WBCs (white blood cells), platelets and RBCs (red blood cells). Leukemia generally implies white blood cell cancer. WBCs are essential components of the immune system. They defend the body from invading viruses, fungi and bacteria in addition to foreign substances and abnormal cells.

When affected with leukemia, the WBCs become abnormal in their functioning. They rapidly divide and over grow the normal cells. WBCs are generally formed in the marrow of the bones, but few WBC types are even produced in the spleen, thymus gland and lymph nodes. Once they have been created, WBCs travel throughout the body in the lymph and blood, having a greater concentration in the spleen and lymph nodes.

The leukemia onset may be chronic or acute in nature. The cancerous cell rapidly multiply in acute type of leukemia. The disease gradually progresses in case of chronic leukemia and the initial symptoms might be quite mild. The cell’s type can also be the basis of classification for leukemia. Leukemia having myeloid cells or myelogenous leukemia is very severe. Monocytes or granulocytes are formed from immature cells or myeloid cells. Lymphocytic leukemia involves lymphocytes.

How does leukaemia start?

Leukaemia is a medical condition that begins in the bone marrow and lymphatic system of the human body. The disease starts when there is an abnormal and rapid growth of leukaemia cells in the bone marrow that soon crowd out the other normal blood cells in the bone marrow.

Consequently, leukaemia cells disrupt the release of normal blood cells in the bloodstream. This leads to a decline in the supply of oxygen to different organs and tissues. All this makes the body prone to bouts of infection and blood clots.

How does leukaemia form?

Leukaemia is believed to occur due to the mutation in the DNA of some blood cells. However, the factors that lead to this mutation are yet to be fully understood. Leukaemia normally occurs when immature white blood cells (leukaemia cells) begin to multiply rapidly and overcrowd the normal and healthy blood cells in the bone marrow and bloodstream.

This leads to a decline in the number of healthy white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets. All these factors combined together contribute to the signs and symptoms of leukaemia.

What are the types of leukemia?

The major types of leukaemia are:

  • Acute myelogenous leukaemia (AML): In AML, leukaemia cells replace healthy and functioning lymphocyte cells in the bloodstream. AML is common in children. It is relatively rare in adults.
  • Acute lymphocytic leukaemia (ALL):In ALL, myeloid stem cells usually mutate into abnormal white blood cells. Some of myeloid stem cells mature into abnormal RBCs or platelets. This cancer can affect both adults and children.
  • Chronic myelogenous leukaemia (CML):This is a rare leukaemia that occurs when a genetic mutation converts the myeloid cells into immature cancer cells. This cancer mostly affects the adults.
  • Chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL):This type of leukaemia usually begins in the B lymphocytes in the elderly adults i.e. people over 55 years. It’s very rarely reported in kids.
  • Other types: Hairy cell leukaemia, myelodysplastic syndromes and myeloproliferative disorders are the rarer types of leukaemia.

What are the signs and symptoms of leukemia?

Signs and symptoms of leukemia:

When there is cancer in the blood-forming tissues of the body including the lymphatic system and bone marrow, it is termed as leukemia. There exist various types of leukemia out of which some are more common in children than in adults.

White blood cells are extremely important for fighting against infections. As per the needs of the body, the white blood cells grow and divide. However, if abnormal production of white blood cells occurs, then the person suffers from leukemia for which the treatment can be complex.

Based on the type of leukemia the symptoms may vary. Some of the common signs and symptoms of leukemia are:

  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Weight loss
  • Infections
  • Fever or chills.
  • Pain or tenderness in the bones
  • Tiny visible spots on the skin
  • Enlargement of liver or spleen along with swollen lymph nodes.
  • Excessive bleeding from the nose or bruising.

How did you know your child has leukaemia?

It is important to note that not all cases of childhood leukaemia will not exhibit the aforementioned symptoms. This is because the symptoms of childhood anaemia vary owing to multiple factors. Also, most of the symptoms mentioned above are common and may not necessarily indicate childhood leukaemia.

Besides the symptoms, there are certain other risk factors that are believed to be linked to an increased risk of childhood leukaemia. Some of those risk factors are:

  • Genetic medical conditions such as Li-Fraumeni syndrome, Klinefelter syndrome, Down syndrome etc
  • History of exposure to radiation therapy or chemotherapy
  • History of immunosuppression for an organ transplant
  • Identical (or non-identical) twin or sibling with leukaemia

To get a more detailed assessment of your child’s health condition, you should consult a physician or a paediatrician who will carry out certain tests and assessments before diagnosing the condition.

What are the final stages of leukaemia?

The stages of leukaemia are:

  • Stage 0:At this stage, the patient has a high level of white blood cells but no physical symptom.
  • stage 1:There is a high level of white blood cells in the body as well as an enlarged lymph node.
  • Stage 2:There is a high level of white blood cells, anaemia, and enlarged lymph nodes.
  • Stage 3:There is a high level of white blood cells, anaemia, enlarged lymph nodes, liver, and spleen.
  • Stage 4:A patient has high white blood cells, anaemia, enlarged lymph nodes, spleen, liver, and low platelet count.

What causes leukemia?

Scientists have not been able to diagnose the exact cause of leukemia until now. A person might suffer from this condition because of environmental and genetic factors. For example, if a person is exposed to certain chemicals like benzene, found in gasoline then he/she might suffer from leukemia. Similarly, those who smoke are more likely to have leukemia. If a person has a family history of leukemia, then the risk is also increased.


How does leukaemia affect the body?

Leukaemia, commonly known as blood cancer, is a medical condition that affects the bone marrow and lymphatic system in the human body. Normally, the blood-forming cells (hematopoietic stem cells) in bone marrow develop into myeloid cells or lymphoid cells. These cells further develop into Red Blood Cells (RBCs), White Blood Cells (WBCs) and Platelets.

However, leukaemia triggers an uncontrolled and rapid growth of leukaemia cells (immature white blood cells) in the bone marrow. Leukaemia cells begin to overcrowd the bone marrow and leave little space for other normal cells (RBCs, WBCs and platelets).

This causes an increase in the number of leukaemia cells in the bloodstream and decline in the number of normal blood cells. As a result, the supply of oxygen to different organs and tissues in the body is severely restricted and the likelihood of infections and blood clots increases significantly.

How does leukaemia kill you?

Patients with leukaemia may die from infections caused by bacteria, fungus, or a virus. This is the stage of leukaemia where the immune system of the body doesn't work properly and also cause multi-organ failure. Additionally, patients may also face problems with the treatment as well.

Is there pain with leukaemia?

Patients with leukaemia may suffer from bone pain. It is caused by the accumulation of white blood cells which causes mild to severe pain in the bones, this is especially specific in long bones of the body such as legs or arms.

What organs are affected by leukaemia?

The spread of leukaemia starts from the soft part of the bones from where it spreads into the blood. As the tumour cells divide they can spread to other parts of the body as well such as the central nervous system, Lymph nodes, liver, spleen.

How do you test for Leukaemia?

The physician will ask a person to undergo certain tests in order to look for signs of leukaemia. Some of the tests that you might be asked to undergo include:

  • Blood tests: A complete blood count test will look for signs of unusual or immature white blood cells.
  • Bone marrow biopsy:This test involves extraction of a small sample of bone marrow from the pelvic bone with a long needle. The test can help a physician determine the type and severity of leukaemia.
  • Spinal tap:This test involves fluid from your spinal cord. The test can help a physician determine if the leukaemia has spread.
  • Imaging tests:Computerised Tomography (CT) scan, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), and Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans can detect signs of leukaemia.

How is leukaemia detected?

Leukaemia is detected by frequent blood tests, physical exam, and the symptom. Some diagnostic exams of leukaemia are:

  • Physical exam:A doctor may check for the physical symptoms of leukaemia such as pale skin, enlarged lymph nodes, spleen, and liver.
  • Blood test:It is done to determine the blood cell levels in the body. The abnormal growth of white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets may suggest leukaemia.
  • Bone marrow test.

What is treatment for leukemia?

The treatment for the patient is determined based on the type of leukemia, overall health, and age of the person. The extent of the spread of cancer cells to other parts of the body is also taken into consideration. Some of the common treatments which can be given to fight leukemia are given below:

  • Biological therapy: This therapy works by making use of treatments that assist the immune system in recognizing and attacking the cells of leukemia.
  • Chemotherapy: This is one of the most common forms of treatment for a person suffering from cancer. In this treatment chemicals are used for destroying the cancerous cells.
  • Stem cell transplant: In this procedure, the bone marrow of the patient is replaced with the healthy bone marrow.
  • Radiation therapy: In this therapy, beams of high-energy or x-ray is used for damaging the cells of leukemia and restrict their growth.
  • Targeted therapy: In this type of therapy, drugs are used for attacking specific cancer cells.

Can leukaemia be treated naturally?

It has been found in a study that carrots may be employed for treating leukaemia. Carrot contains β-carotene and polyacetylenes which has been found to be effective against leukaemia cells. However, it is best to take the proper treatment of leukaemia rather than treating it naturally as there is still not enough evidence that supports the study.

How successful is leukaemia treatment?

The success of leukaemia treatment depends upon several factors such as the stage of cancer, the type of leukaemia, age, and the overall health of the patient. The metastasis of the cancer cells also depends upon treatment.

What is the best medicine for leukaemia?

Drugs Approved for Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia are:

  • Arranon (Nelarabine)
  • Blinatumomab Blincyto (Blinatumomab)
  • Asparlas (Calaspargase Pegol-mknl)
  • Besponsa (Inotuzumab Ozogamicin)
  • Asparaginase Erwinia chrysanthemi

Drugs Approved for Acute Myeloid Leukemia are:

  • Daunorubicin Hydrochloride
  • Arsenic Trioxide
  • Azacitidine
  • Cytarabine
  • Daunorubicin Hydrochloride and Cytarabine Liposome
  • Cerubidine (Daunorubicin Hydrochloride)
  • Cyclophosphamide
  • Daurismo (Glasdegib Maleate)

How long can you live with leukaemia?

However, the most important of all these factors that affect long term survival are age and type of leukaemia.

  • Acute lymphocytic leukaemia (ALL) : The survival rates of ALL are better for kids than adults. Only 25 to 35 of adult leukaemia patients beyond 5 years.
  • Acute myeloid leukaemia (AML): The remission rate of AML is good. Nearly, 80% of the people with AML will go into remission within 30 days of induction therapy. However, the cure rate is lower if the disease returns.
  • Chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL): When treated with chemotherapy, remission occurs in most people suffering from stage I or II of CLL. Some people often live for decades after the remission of CLL. The average survival period is 9 years.
  • Chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML): Survival rates for people with CML have increased drastically in recent years. Survival rates of more than 5 years have been reported in 90% of the people treated with a tyrosine kinase inhibitor.

What are the side effects of leukemia?

Taking treatment for leukemia also causes side effects which may be seen in the patient during the course of medication or in the later stage. Common side effects are:

  • There may be complete hair loss
  • The person might have a sore mouth
  • There can be a change in the taste of mouth
  • The person also has a risk of all sorts of bleeding as well as bruising.
  • The patient might have tiredness.
  • There is a possibility of infection.

Is Leukemia always fatal?

A person with leukaemia has a survival rate of about 61.4 % which is approximately a 5-year survival rate. Therefore, at least 69 out of 100 people survive for approximately 5 years following diagnosis. Some patients will longer than 5 years, depending upon their treatment.

How to prevent leukemia?

The risk of developing leukemia can be reduced by doing the following things:

  • If you are a smoker, then quit smoking. This is the best way to reduce the chance of occurrence of leukemia.
  • If a person is obese or overweight, then there is a chance that he/she might suffer from leukemia. Thus, maintaining a healthy body weight can prevent leukemia.
  • A person should avoid coming in contact with formaldehyde and benzene. If a person has long-term exposure to these chemicals, then the chances of development of leukemia increases.

How to cure leukaemia with food?

It is not possible to cure leukaemia with food. However, good nutrition does play an important part in healing body and boosting recovery from leukaemia. You can incorporate the below mentioned dietary practices in your daily lifestyle while fighting leukaemia:

  • Consume at least 10 fruits and vegetables daily
  • Replace processed cereals with whole grains
  • Eat foods rich in protein
  • Avoid spicy and fried foods
  • Limit caffeine intake
  • Consume foods rich in probiotic bacteria
  • Opt for short meals after every 2 or 4 hours
  • Avoid alcoholic beverages

Besides following the abovementioned practices, you should also engage in regular physical activity, drink plenty of water, get enough sleep, quit smoking (if you do) and limit stress.

Is Leukemia Stage 4 curable?

The survival rate of leukaemia keeps on improving. With adequate treatment, the patient may live longer than five years even after the prognosis. The treatment of leukaemia also depends upon its spread and severity.

What is ayurvedic treatment for leukemia?

According to Ayurveda, leukemia occurs because of three types of doshas Kaphas, Vata, and Pitta. The major role of ayurvedic treatment is to treat these doshas. The treatment offered by Ayurveda aims to detoxify the entire body with the help of diet and herbs.

The herbs are used for the efficient circulation of blood and cleansing action. They also eliminate the toxins from the body and improves overall immunity. Some of the herbal remedies which can be used for the treatment of leukemia are Tulsi capsules, Ashwagandha capsules, Curcumin capsules and Guggul capsules.


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Written ByDr. Sanjaya MishraMD - OncologyOncology
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Reviewed ByDr. Bhupindera Jaswant SinghMD - Consultant PhysicianGeneral Physician
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