What is leukaemia?
Leukaemia is a form of cancer affecting cells that make new blood cells, generally these cells are found in the bone marrow, but when they become abnormal, in leukaemia, they spill out into the circulation because there are so many of them. They also crowd out normal cells in the bone marrow so production of normal blood cells is much reduced. This includes white blood cells to fight infection, red blood cells to carry oxygen and platelets which enable normal blood clotting. This effectively prevents normal blood cell production and causes the symptoms of leukaemia which are anaemia, reduced resistance to infection and abnormal bleeding. This process of abnormal cell production can happen suddenly or gradually over many years. If it happens suddenly symptoms may develop rapidly over a few weeks – this is what happens in acute leukaemia. Without treatment acute leukaemia can cause death in a few weeks from bone marrow failure (i.e. infection and bleeding). There are two main types of acute leukaemia in adults:
- Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML)
- Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (ALL)
In adults AML is much more common than ALL. Some acute leukaemias seem to be a mixture of both these types, they are called ‘mixed’ or ‘biphenotypic’ leukaemia.
When the process happens gradually over many years this is called chronic leukaemia. There are two main types of chronic leukaemia-:
- Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia (CML)
- Chronic Lymphocytic Leukaemia (CLL)
CLL is much more common than CML. An old name for Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia is Chronic Granulocytic Leukaemia.
In these conditions the disease is often stable or slowly progressive over a long period of time with no or minimal symptoms. Treatment is often not required for CLL. Treatment is almost always needed for CML. At some point the disease transforms into more aggressive leukaemia, at this stage the disease causes symptoms like acute leukaemia and treatment is required to prevent death from bone marrow failure. AML progresses more quickly than CLL.
Treatment outcome is variable between the types of leukaemia and is covered under Care and Mobility considerations. There is no screening programme for leukaemia.
Risk factors for development of leukaemia include exposure to radiation and past treatment with radiotherapy or chemotherapy.
Leukaemia affects 7000 people a year in the UK and just over 4000 die of the disease each year. It is more common in older people than younger people
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Amended February 2009