Leukemia is cancer of the blood. The condition is characterized an overabundance of abnormal cells reach extremely high levels in the bone marrow (where blood cells are formed), lymphatic system, and blood stream. The excess white blood cells interfere with the functions of vital organs, eventually preventing the body from creating healthy platelets and red and white blood cells. The consequences of this lack of healthy cells are many: without healthy white blood cells, the body is unable to fight off infections; without platelets, blood does not clot properly; and without red blood cells, the necessary amount of oxygen is not carried to the body’s organs.
Although leukemia is the most common form of childhood cancer, it also affects adults. The condition does occur more often in men than women. Risk factors for leukemia include a family history of leukemia, smoking, and prolonged contact with industrial carcinogens.
Signs and Symptoms
In its early stages, leukemia often produces no symptoms. When it reaches later stages, the most common symptoms are:
- Anemia (symptoms include fatigue and pallor)
- Increased susceptibility to illness and infections
- Bruising or bleeding easily
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Appetite and weight loss
- Pressure under the lower left ribs from enlargement of the spleen
Conventional Medical Treatment
If you notice any symptoms of leukemia, see your physician immediately. To diagnose the condition, your physician performs a blood count to determine the levels of white blood cells. If leukemia is suspected, a bone marrow biopsy may be necessary.
Treatment depends on the serverity condition. In many cases, chemotherapy or radiation therapy can cause the leukemia to go into remissian, causing blood cell levels to return to normal. (See “Conventional Medical Treatment” in the “Bladder Cancer” entry for more information on radiation and chemotherapy.) If the patient has extremely low levels of healthy cells, blood transfusion is sometimes necessary. Very serious cases of leukemia often require bone marrow transplants, during which diseased bone marrow is removed and replaced by healthy donor bone marrow. A combination of chemotherapeutic drugs may also be administered.
Complementary and Alternative Treatments
Traditional Chinese Medicine
Acupuncture There is some controversy about using acupuncture on people with leukemia, because it does improve blood flow and increase the number of white blood cells produced, Which may actually spread the disse (which is characterized by an overabundance of white blood cells). Therefore, leukemia patients would be wise to consult their health care provider before undergoing acupuncture.