Symptoms of leukemia are not very conclusive on their own.
Symptoms of leukemia are not the only things needed to diagnose the disease. One would have to undergo a series of tests to have a definite conclusion. There are actually a lot of misconceptions when it comes to symptoms of leukemia. This article aims to right those misconceptions and give a little info on how leukemia could really be diagnosed.
In order for us to understand how those symptoms came about, we would need a closer look into the pathophysiology of the disease. Leukemia is a very complicated disease, but I would try to make it as simple as possible.
Where do Symptoms of Leukemia come From?
Leukemia, also known as cancer of the blood, is a very serious condition that causes more than a thousand deaths a year. In a person that is not affected with leukemia, their white blood cells only have a lifespan of 30 days. After that, they die and make room for new ones. This process ensures that there would always be room for other cells to grow and die out too. In leukemia, these white blood cells do not die in 30 days’ time. While they are still around, the bone marrow still continues to produce more and more white blood cells. This makes everything crowded, and the other cells cannot do their respective jobs.
This is just a general look into things. In truth, there are several types of leukemia. They may exhibit similar symptoms, and the treatment might be the same, but their physiology would be different. Allow me to tell you all about them.
What are the Types of Leukemia?
Leukemia can be grouped in two ways: how quickly it develops and which types of cells are affected. Leukemia that is grouped according to time-frame would be acute and chronic leukemia.
- Acute leukemia develops faster than chronic leukemia. Symptoms of leukemia worsen in a short amount of time. The white cells are rendered totally useless since they are already affected since the day they were produced. They cannot do any of the functions of a normal white cell.
- Chronic leukemia develops over time. Unlike acute leukemia, the white cells were still able to do their functions early on, but develop abnormalities as time passes. Symptoms of leukemia cannot be detected early for they are very mild and almost undetectable. Doctors usually just come upon them by chance during a check-up. The symptoms would be very mild at first, and they would worsen over time, but it is a slow process.
Another way to categorize leukemia would be through the kind of white cells it affects.
- Lymphoblastic leukemia starts from a type of cell called lymphoblasts. Lymphoblasts are immature lymphocytes. When they develop, their main function would be to direct your immune system. There could either be acute or chronic lymphocytic leukemia. ALL or acute lymphoblastic leukemia usually affects children and manifests at around 2 to 5 years old. Although the cause is unknown, they usually point it to exposure to radiation. Tests have been done to the survivors of the Chernobyl meltdown and the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombings.
The damage caused by ALL is due to overcrowding. The bone marrow becomes too overcrowded that production of other cells is impeded. The lymphocytes would also start to wander to other organs, seeking room. Despite all of that, the prognosis for ALL looks promising with a cure rate of 80% for children and 45%-60% for adults.
- Myeloid leukemia, as the name suggests, stems from abnormal myeloid cells. Myelocytes are precursors to granulocytes. These are also responsible for our body’s immune response. As with ALL, the damage is also done through overcrowding. The bone marrow gets too saturated with leukemic cells that it causes a drop in the production of other cells, like RBCs, platelets, etc. AML is considered as an extremely rare disease, affecting only 1.2% of the general population. It also usually affects adults.
What are the Symptoms of Leukemia?
Although we have seen that leukemia can be categorized into four, all their presenting symptoms are pretty much the same.
- Fatigue and malaise
- Anemia or the condition of not having enough red blood cells.
- Constant fever and infection
- Anorexia or loss of appetite, followed by weight loss
- Bruising that is excessive and cannot be explained
- Pain in the bones and joints
- Difficulty of breathing due to decreased red blood cell count
- Enlarged lymph nodes
- Pitting edema or swelling in the lower limbs
- Petichiae or small red spots due to decrease in platelet count
How do you Diagnose Leukemia?
As mentioned earlier, a credible diagnosis cannot be formed by just basing on the symptoms of leukemia alone. The patient has to undergo a battery of tests to confirm a doctor’s suspicions. Here are the common tests performed on a patient suspected of leukemia.
- Blood tests will be performed. Your doctor would be looking for high levels of white blood cells, and a decrease in all the other blood cell count.
- Bone marrow biopsy is usually the procedure of choice when diagnosing leukemia. A thick hollow needle will be use to aspirate bone marrow usually from the tibia or the backbone.
- Spinal tap is another test that is performed on people suspected of leukemia. This time, they will be aspirating spinal fluid from your lower spine. They would then send it to the lab to test for leukemic cells.
With the advances that we have nowadays, dealing with the symptoms of leukemia has become quite manageable. But remember, the prognosis of the disease usually depends on how early it has been spotted. So if you start feeling a lump here or there, and maybe some constant bruising, go consult your doctor immediately.