Leukemia

Basic information about leukemia.

Leukemia is a type of cancer that affects the blood cells. To understand leukemia, it is helpful to know about normal blood cells and what happens to them when leukemia develops.

When leukemia develops, the body produces large numbers of abnormal blood cells. In most types of leukemia, the abnormal cells are white blood cells. The leukemia cells usually look different from normal blood cells, and they do not function properly.

There are several types of leukemia. They are grouped in two ways. One way is by how quickly the disease develops and gets worse. The other way is by the type of blood cell that is affected.

Leukemia is either acute or chronic. In acute leukemia, the abnormal blood cells are blasts that remain very immature and cannot carry out their normal functions. The number of blasts increases rapidly, and the disease gets worse quickly. In chronic leukemia, some blast cells are present, but in general, these cells are more mature and can carry out some of their normal functions. Also, the number of blasts increases less rapidly than in acute leukemia. As a result, chronic leukemia gets worse gradually.

Leukemia can arise in either of the two main types of white blood cells—lymphoid cells or myeloid cells. When leukemia affects lymphoid cells, it is called lymphocytic leukemia. When myeloid cells are affected, the disease is called myeloid or myelogenous leukemia.

Preparing for Treatment
Many people with cancer want to learn all they can about the disease and their treatment choices so they can take an active part in decisions about their medical care. When a person is diagnosed with cancer, shock and stress are natural reactions. These feelings may make it difficult to think of everything to ask the doctor. Often, it helps to make a list of questions. To help remember what the doctor says, patients may take notes or ask whether they may use a tape recorder. Some people also want to have a family member or friend with them when they talk to the doctor—to take part in the discussion, to take notes, or just to listen.

People do not need to ask all of their questions or remember all of the answers at one time. Questions may arise throughout the treatment process. Patients and caregivers may ask doctors, nurses, or other members of the health care team to explain things further or to provide more information.

These are some questions a patient may want to ask the doctor before treatment begins:

  • What is the diagnosis?
  • What is the stage of the disease?
  • What is the grade of the disease?
  • What are the treatment choices? Which do you recommend? Why?
  • What are the risks and possible side effects of each treatment?
  • What are the chances that the treatment will be successful?
  • What new treatments are being studied in clinical trials? Would a clinical trial be appropriate?
  • How long will treatment last?
  • Will treatment affect my normal activities? If so, for how long?
  • What is the treatment likely to cost?

Follow-up Care

Regular follow-up exams are very important after leukemia treatment. The doctor will continue to check the patient closely to be sure that the cancer has not returned. Checkups usually include exams of the blood, bone marrow, and cerebrospinal fluid. From time to time, the doctor does a complete physical exam.

Cancer treatment may cause side effects many years later. For this reason, patients should continue to have regular checkups and should also report health changes or problems to their doctor as soon as they appear.

© Copyright FamilyCare America, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Adapted from information in the What You Need to Know About™ Cancer series, published by the National Cancer Institute.

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