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Leukemia by Stephanie Addison

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Leukemia is a cancer of the blood-forming cells. It begins in the bone marrow and rapidly spreads to the blood. It is the most common cancer among children and teenagers. Although it accounts for 1 in 3 cancers in children, it is a rare disease. Today, leukemia does not have any known risk factors and there is also no known cause of the deadly cancer. Genetic disorders such as an immune system deficiency carry an increased risk of getting leukemia because it is more difficult for the body to fight off the cancer.

Children may have a higher risk of Leukemia if they are born with Down syndrome or Klinefelter syndrome. There are no special tests that can be given to help find leukemia at an early stage. There are however, signs and symptoms that can be bring attention to the disease. Fatigue, pale skin, fever, easy bleeding or bruising, bone pain and weight loss are just a few of the symptoms that could appear in a person with leukemia. When these symptoms arise, blood cell counts are performed by a doctor. These tests show whether there are excess white blood cells and a lack of red blood cells.

Leukemia differs from other cancers, in that is not staged; however, it can be classified into two main types: Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), or Chronic leukemia and then classified again into different subgroups as high standard and low risk.     Choosing treatment options when leukemia is found makes for an important decision. The most common treatment method for leukemia is chemotherapy, but other treatments such as, surgery and radiation can also be used in some cases.

Chemotherapy refers to the use of drugs that kill cancer cells. An individual may get several drugs at different times during the course of the treatment process.  Chemotherapy is usually given in cycles, allowing time in between each treatment. With this form of treatment there are unfortunately immediate side effects. While chemotherapy kills the cancer cells, it can also damage normal cells. This is what causes hair loss, mouth sores, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting. The side effects usually go away after treatment and there are also ways to manage the side effects. For several years after treatment, follow-up exams are very important. Doctors continue to perform physical exams and lab tests to watch for signs of the disease recurring. Follow up visits can often last several years after treatment. With the major advances in treatment, more children treated for cancer are living into adulthood. Childhood cancer survivors are at risk for several possible late effects of their treatment. Survivors of leukemia often suffer from emotional or psychological problems. These can often be conquered with support and encouragement from family members. Cancer treatment can also have an effect on sexual development and the ability to have children in some cases.  

There is great progress being made in the understanding of how changes in DNA can cause normal blood cells to turn into leukemia cells. In the future this information could possibly be used to develop gene therapy. This treatment would allow doctors to replace the abnormal DNA of cancer cells with normal DNA in order to restore normal controls of cell growth. 


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