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- Leukemia facts
- What is leukemia? What are the different types of leukemia?
- What causes leukemia? Is leukemia hereditary?
- What are leukemia risk factors?
- What are leukemia symptoms and signs?
- How do physicians diagnose leukemia?
- What is the treatment for leukemia?
- What are complications of leukemia?
- What is the prognosis of leukemia?
- How often does leukemia recur?
- Is it possible to prevent leukemia?
- What support groups are available for people with leukemia?
- What research is being done on leukemia?
What are leukemia symptoms and signs?
The symptoms and signs of leukemia depend upon the type of leukemia. As stated earlier, slow-growing or chronic leukemia may not cause any symptoms at the outset, while aggressive or rapidly growing leukemia may lead to severe symptoms. The symptoms of leukemia arise from a loss of function of the normal blood cells or from accumulation of the abnormal cells in the body.
Signs and symptoms of leukemia typically include the following:
- Night sweats
- Swollen lymph nodes that are usually painless
- Feelings of fatigue, tiredness
- Easy bleeding or bruising, causing bluish or purplish patches on the skin or tiny red spots on the skin, or recurring nosebleeds
- Frequent infections
- Bone or joint pain
- Weight loss that is otherwise unexplained, or loss of appetite
- Enlargement of the spleen or liver, which can lead to abdominal pain or swelling
- Red spots on the skin (petechiae)
How do physicians diagnose leukemia?
Hematologists are specialist physicians who diagnose and treat blood diseases, including leukemia; hematologist-oncologists treat blood diseases like leukemia, as well as other types of cancers.
In addition to a medical history (asking about symptoms and risk factors) and a physical exam to look for signs of leukemia (lymph node enlargement, enlargement of spleen), the diagnosis of leukemia typically involves laboratory studies of a blood sample. Abnormal numbers of blood cells may suggest a diagnosis of leukemia, and the blood sample may also be examined under the microscope to see if the cells appear abnormal. A sample of the bone marrow may also be obtained to establish the diagnosis. For a bone marrow aspirate, a long, thin needle is used to withdraw a sample of bone marrow from the hip bone, under local anesthesia. A bone marrow biopsy involves insertion of a thick, hollow needle into the hip bone to remove a sample of the bone marrow, using local anesthesia.
Cells from the blood and bone marrow are further tested if leukemia cells are present. These additional tests look for genetic alterations and expression of certain cell surface markers by the cancer cells (immunophenotyping). The results of these tests are used to help determine the precise classification of the leukemia and to decide on optimal treatment.
Other tests that may be useful include a chest X-ray to determine if there are enlarged lymph nodes or other signs of disease and a lumbar puncture to remove a sample of cerebrospinal fluid to determine if the leukemia cells have infiltrated the membranes and space surrounding the brain and spinal cord.
Imaging tests such as MRI and CT scanning can also be useful for some patients to determine the extent of disease.