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Cancer Health Center

Understanding Leukemia -- Diagnosis and Treatment

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How Do I Know If I Have Leukemia?

Because many types of leukemia show no obvious symptoms early in the disease, leukemia may be diagnosed incidentally during a physical exam or as a result of routine blood testing. If a person appears pale, has enlarged lymph nodes, swollen gums, an enlarged liver or spleen, significant bruising, bleeding, fever, persistent infections, fatigue, or a small pinpoint rash, the doctor should suspect leukemia. A blood test showing an abnormal white cell count may suggest the diagnosis. To confirm the diagnosis and identify the specific type of leukemia, a needle biopsy and aspiration of bone marrow from a pelvic bone will need to be done to test for leukemic cells, DNA markers, and chromosome changes in the bone marrow. 

Important factors in leukemia include the age of the patient, the type of leukemia, and the chromosomal abnormalities found in leukemia cells and bone marrow.

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What Are the Treatments for Leukemia?

While the reported incidence of leukemia has not changed much since the 1950s, more people are surviving longer thanks mainly to advances in chemotherapy. Childhood leukemia (3 out of 4 cases in children is ALL), for example, represents one of the most dramatic success stories of cancer treatment. The five-year survival rate for children with ALL has risen to about 85% today.

For acute leukemia, the immediate goal of treatment is remission. The patient undergoes chemotherapy in a hospital and stays in a private room to reduce the chance of infection. Since acute leukemia patients have extremely low counts of healthy blood cells, they are given blood and platelet transfusions to help prevent or stop bleeding. They receive antibiotics to prevent or treat infection. Medications to control treatment-related side effects are given as well.

People with acute leukemia are likely to attain remission when chemotherapy is used as the primary treatment. To keep the disease under control, they will then receive consolidation chemotherapy for 1-4 months to get rid of any remaining malignant cells.

Patients with ALL will receive intermittent treatment usually for up to two years. After obtaining a complete remission, some patients with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) may require an allogeneic stem cell transplant. This requires a willing donor with compatible tissue type and genetic characteristics -- preferably a family member. Other donor sources could include a matched unrelated donor or umbilical blood.

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