Leukemia is a cancer that affects the tissues of the body that are responsible for creating new blood. There are many types of leukemia, with different causes and risks factors for each. When a patient has leukemia, it typically begins in the bone marrow, with the white cells. Instead of producing healthy white cells at a normal pace, the cells are mutated, and may be produced at a rapid pace. The cause of leukemia is unknown, but research is ongoing for this disease.
Types of Leukemia
Leukemia is either chronic or acute. Chronic leukemia progresses slowly, while acute leukemia progresses quickly. Chronic leukemia may not show symptoms for a long span of time, in some cases. In acute leukemia, the bone marrow cells are not being allowed to mature properly. Without treatment, acute leukemia can cause death within a very short period of time, less than a year. In chronic leukemia, the cells are only partially mature, and resemble normal marrow cells. These cells do not fight infection in the same way that normal white blood cells do.
There are four common types of leukemia, including:
- Chronic lymphocytic leukemia
- Chronic myeloid leukemia
- Acute lymphocytic leukemia
- Acute myeloid leukemia
Chronic lymphocytic leukemia and chronic myeloid leukemia are more common in adults, rarely affecting children. Acute lymphocytic leukemia and acute myeloid leukemia are more common in children, but can affect adults, too. There are many further classifications for leukemia that stem from these main types.
Lymphocytic leukemia is a cancer that begins in the cells that will become lymphocytes. While lymphoma is a type of cancer that also begins in these cells, lymphomas typically spread to other body tissues, such as lymph nodes. Lymphocytic leukemia cells typically stay in the marrow and blood. Myeloid leukemia begins in the cells that would mature to become granulocytes or monocytes.
Physicians often fail to diagnose chronic leukemia, as it often shows no symptoms until the disease has begun to progress. Many of the symptoms of leukemia may also be symptoms of other illnesses, which results in a high number of misdiagnoses. Misdiagnoses and failure to diagnose can be very dangerous, as the cancer is being allowed to spread while proper treatment is not being issued.
Leukemia is commonly misdiagnosed as the following conditions:
- Pathological fracture
- Bleeding disorders
- Immune thrombocytopenic purpura
- Autoimmune lymphoproliferative syndrome
To rule out leukemia, a full patient history should be assessed for risk factors, especially family history of the disease. A blood test may preliminarily indicate leukemia, as the numbers of white blood cells versus red blood cells and platelets may be off. Blood tests may also help to pinpoint the specific type of leukemia.
A bone marrow test will give a more definitive diagnosis of leukemia in some cases. This test can be painful, as a needle must be inserted into the bone to draw out marrow cells for observation. Examination of these cells will help physicians to spot abnormalities in the marrow cells, indicating leukemia.
Treatment of Leukemia
Common forms of treatment for leukemia include:
- Biological therapy
- Stem cell transplants
- Radiation therapy
Leukemia treatments may vary depending on factors such as age, general health, and what type of leukemia it is. How far the leukemia has spread through the body is also a factor affecting treatment methods. If a stem cell transplant is chosen to swap infected bone marrow for healthy marrow, high doses of chemotherapy and radiation therapy are often given, in order to destroy the unhealthy tissue.
Chemotherapy is medication that can be administered intravenously or through a pill. Radiation therapy uses high powered energy beams to destroy cancerous cells. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy often destroy healthy cells as well as diseased cells, and may have many side effects. Biological therapy uses medication to boost the immune system, to help the body fight the leukemia.
Handling a Misdiagnosis of Leukemia
A misdiagnosis of leukemia can result in loss of life or severely undermine the quality of life for the patient. If a physician has failed to diagnose the leukemia as a result of incompetence or a rushed diagnosis, the physician or medical facility may be liable for medical costs stemming from the misdiagnosis. Consulting an attorney can help patients and loved ones to understand the options available for recovering these costs.
“Leukemia.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical education and Research, 03 Apr 2012. Web. 7 Nov 2013. <http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/leukemia/DS00351/DSECTION=treatments-and-drugs>.
“Misdiagnosis of Leukemia .” Right Diagnosis. Health Grades, Inc, 07 May 2013. Web. 7 Nov 2013. <http://www.rightdiagnosis.com/l/leukemia/misdiag.htm>.
“What is Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia?.” American Cancer Society. American Cancer Society, 31 Jul 2013. Web. 7 Nov 2013. <http://www.cancer.org/cancer/leukemia-chroniclymphocyticcll/detailedguide/leukemia-chronic-lymphocytic-what-is-cll>.