In leukemia, abnormal white blood cells (WBCs) grow and divide uncontrollably, replacing typical WBCs. This can have wide-reaching effects on the body.
Leukemia is a type of cancer that causes the bone marrow to produce abnormal blood cells. The disease can affect any type of blood cell, but most commonly affects WBCs that help protect against infection and illness.
This article outlines the various ways in which leukemia may affect the body, as well as a person’s day-to-day life. We also describe what leukemia is, including the different types.
Leukemia leads to the rapid and significant production of abnormal blood cells, typically WBCs.
An excess of abnormal blood cells makes it more difficult for the bone marrow to produce other critical types of blood cells, such as red blood cells and platelets. This lack of red blood cells or platelets can lead to body aches and symptoms of anemia, or severe bruising and bleeding.
A person may experience bone pain as their bone marrow becomes overcrowded by the growth of cancer cells. People most often feel this pain in the long bones of the legs and arms, or in the ribs and sternum.
Sometimes, a person may experience pain due to a mass of cancer cells forming near the nerves of the spinal cord.
WBCs play an essential role in the function of the immune system. They are responsible for fighting infections and diseases in the body.
Leukemia typically affects WBCs, causing the bone marrow to produce abnormal WBCs that cannot fight infections as they should. This impairs the immune system, putting the body at increased risk of developing severe infections and illnesses.
In leukemia, it is possible for cancer cells to infiltrate blood vessels, causing issues such as ischemic cardiac disease, which is also called coronary artery disease (CAD). This is where the heart does not receive an adequate supply of blood and oxygen.
Additionally, certain medications used to treat leukemia may increase the risk of heart failure. Drugs called anthracyclines are the standard therapy for acute types of leukemia. These types progress rapidly, so they require more aggressive treatment. However, receiving high doses of anthracyclines over a short period increases their toxicity.
Some forms of leukemia can affect the digestive system, although this is rare. For example, chronic lymphocytic leukemia affects the digestive system in about 5.7–13% of cases. Doctors refer to this as Richter’s syndrome.
Leukemic lesions or injuries can form in the stomach, ileum, and proximal colon. These conditions can become extremely serious or life threatening due to infection, bleeding, or inflammation of the intestinal tissues.
Leukemia and its treatment can affect a person’s physical and mental health. Many people with leukemia find it beneficial to seek practical or emotional support from a support group. Support can also come from friends and family and is an integral part of improving the person’s quality of life.
Below are some tips for dealing with the challenges that leukemia can present.
- being flexible with plans
- setting priorities on tasks
- asking for help
- managing nutrition
- improving sleep habits
- engaging in light activity, such as walking or gardening
Managing infection risk
People with leukemia may experience low WBC counts that make them more susceptible to infections. Some ways to limit the risk of infection include:
- washing and sanitizing hands frequently
- avoiding people who are sick
- staying away from crowded places
Managing side effects of treatment
Although necessary, leukemia treatment may cause side effects. One primary treatment for leukemia is chemotherapy, which may cause:
Doctors can prescribe medications to prevent or reduce some of the above symptoms, suggest self-management strategies, or provide referrals to other doctors to address symptoms and side effects.
Most types of leukemia develop in WBCs, an essential part of the immune system. Types of white blood cells include:
Typically, WBCs grow and divide in an organized fashion as the body needs them. However, in people with leukemia, the bone marrow produces abnormal WBCs that do not work as they should.
Leukemia can be either acute or chronic. Acute leukemia progresses much faster than chronic leukemia and requires more immediate treatment.
Some forms of leukemia commonly affect children, whereas other forms occur primarily in adults.
Types of leukemia include:
- Acute lymphocytic leukemia: This type of leukemia begins in blood-forming cells within the bone marrow. It is more common in children versus adults.
- Acute myeloid leukemia: This type of leukemia usually develops from cells that turn into WBCs other than lymphocytes but can involve different types of blood-forming cells. It is most common in adults.
- Chronic lymphocytic leukemia: This leukemia originates from lymphocytes. It primarily affects older adults.
- Chronic myeloid leukemia: This leukemia begins in the cells of the bone marrow before entering the blood. Chronic myeloid leukemia accounts for only 10% of leukemia cases.
- Chronic myelomonocytic leukemia: This rare leukemia also begins in blood-forming cells within the bone marrow. It involves an overproduction of monocytes. It is more common in older adults.
Leukemia is a type of cancer affecting the bone marrow and blood cells. It typically affects WBCs, which are responsible for protecting against infection and illness.
Leukemia and its treatment affect many areas of the body, including blood, bones, the heart and other muscles, and the digestive system. Leukemia also affects the immune system, increasing the risk of infections. A person can reduce their risk of infection by managing hygiene and avoiding people who are sick.
People living with leukemia may face unique challenges. Many people benefit from seeking emotional and practical help from a support group. A person can ask their doctor or medical team for information on support groups in their area.
Last medically reviewed on September 14, 2021
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