Leukaemia is a group of blood cancers that typically begin in the bone marrow, resulting in high numbers of abnormal blood cells. These blood cells, known as blasts or leukaemia cells, are not fully developed.
What is Leukaemia?
Leukaemia is the general term given to a group of cancers that develop in the bone marrow, originating from developing blood cells that have undergone a malignant change. This means that they multiply in an uncontrolled way and do not mature properly, leaving them unable to function as they should.
Types of Leukaemia
Doctors categorise leukaemia based on the type of white blood cell involved (lymphocytes or myeloid cells) and whether the illness develops very quickly (acute disease) or slowly over time (chronic disease). There are four main types of leukaemia:
- Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL)
- Acute myeloid leukaemia (AML)
- Chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL)
- Chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML)
Risks of Leukaemia
The exact cause of leukaemia is unknown, but several risk factors have been identified:
The risk of developing leukaemia increases with age. Most types of leukaemia are more common in adults. However, acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) is more common in children under the age of 5.
The primary types of leukaemia (AML, ALL, CML, and CLL) are slightly more common in males than in females.
Those with a parent, sibling or child with certain types leukaemia are more likely to develop the disease.
Previous Cancer Treatment
Individuals who have undergone certain types of chemotherapy and radiation therapies for other cancers face an increased risk.
Exposure to certain chemicals, such as benzene and pesticides, can increase your risk.
Exposure to high levels of radiation (e.g., atomic bomb exposure, medical radiation) can increase the risk of leukaemia.
People with Down syndrome, Fanconi anaemia, Ataxia-telangiectasia, and Bloom syndrome are at a slightly higher risk for developing leukaemia.
Certain Blood Disorders
Certain blood disorders, such as myelodysplastic syndromes, can increase the risk of developing leukaemia.
It’s important to note that having one or more risk factors does not mean that you will definitely develop leukaemia. Many people with these risk factors never develop the disease, while others with no known risk factors do. If you’re concerned about your risk, it is best to discuss with your doctor.
Symptoms of Leukaemia
Common leukaemia signs and symptoms include:
Fever or chills
Persistent fatigue and weakness
Frequent or severe infections
Losing weight without trying
Swollen lymph nodes, enlarged liver or spleen
Easy bleeding or bruising
Tiny red spots in your skin (petechiae)
Excessive sweating, especially at night
Bone pain or tenderness
Here are the common tests and procedures involved in the diagnosis of leukaemia:
Full Blood Count (FBC)
A sample of your blood is examined to determine if you have abnormal levels of red or white blood cells or platelets, which may suggest leukaemia.
Bone Marrow Biopsy
This is a procedure to remove a sample of bone marrow from your hipbone using a long, thin needle. The sample will then be sent to a laboratory to look for leukaemia cells.
A sample of spinal fluid is tested to see if leukaemia has spread to the spinal fluid surrounding your brain and spinal cord.
Imaging and Other Tests
Imaging tests like CT scans, MRI, and PET scans are used to determine whether the leukaemia cells have affected the bones or organs such as kidneys, brain, or lymph nodes.