The symptoms of leukemia, such as frequent infections and easy bruising and bleeding, result from the blood cells’ inability to perform their normal functions. However, at the time of diagnosis of either CLL or CML, patients may have no symptoms. People with leukemia get infections because their white blood cells do not protect them from disease. They become anemic because of a shortage of healthy red blood cells. They bleed and bruise easily because they lack enough platelets to enable their blood to clot.
Other symptoms depend on which parts of the body the leukemia cells invade. In acute leukemia, cells often collect in the brain and spinal cord, causing headaches, confusion, vomiting, loss of muscle control, and seizures. Some people develop sores on the skin or in the eyes. In both chronic and acute leukemia, various organs may be affected, including the skin, central nervous system, digestive tract, testicles, and kidneys.
Common symptoms of leukemia include:
- fever, chills, and other flu-like symptoms
- fatigue and weakness
- frequent infections
- loss of appetite and/or weight
- swollen or tender lymph nodes, liver, or spleen
- easy bruising or bleeding
- swollen or bleeding gums
- small red spots under the skin
- sweating, especially at night
- bone or joint pain
In acute leukemia, symptoms appear suddenly and worsen rapidly. Symptoms of acute leukemia include:
- severe infection
- paleness (a sign of anemia)
- feeling weak and short of breath
- easy bruising
- purple blotches on the skin
- joint and bone pain
- swollen glands
- swollen, painful, bleeding gums.
The symptoms of chronic leukemia may take a long time to develop, and may be quite mild at first. Frequently the doctor finds chronic leukemia when you have a blood test during a routine checkup. About a fifth of the people who get chronic leukemia have no symptoms when their cancer is found by a blood test. Often the first symptoms are very general, such as enlarged lymph nodes. You may also lose your appetite, lose weight, feel tired, become short of breath when you exercise, and have a sense of fullness in your abdomen, which is caused by an enlarged spleen.
As the disease develops, you may grow pale and start to bruise easily. Chronic leukemia usually does not lead to infections until the later stages of the disease. Because CLL progresses slowly, you may not need treatment for years. Treatment is not given until you develop symptoms, or until it is clear that the disease is progressing. In the later stages of CML, you may develop fever, enlargement of the lymph nodes, and lumps under the skin.
In general, more adults than children get leukemia. Children usually get acute leukemia (particularly ALL), while adults are more likely to have chronic leukemia. The American Cancer Society estimates that every year about 28,800 adults and 2,600 children in the US get leukemia. Most people with chronic leukemia are adults; only about 2% of cases of chronic leukemia occur in children.
- ALL is the most common cancer in children. Most children who get it are between the ages of 3 and 5, but it can also affect adolescents, and sometimes adults.
- AML affects mostly adults, but still causes nearly half of the cases of leukemia among children.
- CLL affects only adults, most of whom are over the age of 60. Men are two to three times more likely to get this form of leukemia than women.
- CML affects mostly adults. Children get it only rarely.
Several other factors can increase your risk of getting leukemia.
- Smoking is a known risk factor for leukemia. Cancer-causing substances in tobacco smoke can travel through the bloodstream and affect other parts of the body, as well as the lungs.
- High-voltage power lines. Some research suggests that exposure to electromagnetic fields from high-voltage power lines may be a risk factor for leukemia.
- High-dose radiation. Exposure to high-dose radiation, as from a nuclear reactor accident or from therapeutic radiation, increases the risk for most types of leukemia.
- Chemicals. Workers exposed to benzene and farm workers exposed to pesticides or herbicides over long periods of time are at greater risk for developing leukemia.
- Genetic conditions. Certain genetic conditions can increase the risk for leukemia. For example, children with Down syndrome are more likely to get the disease.
- Chemotherapy. Being treated with certain chemotherapy drugs for other types of cancer increases the risk for AML.
- A virus known as HTLV-1, which is similar to the virus that causes AIDS, increases a person’s risk for T-cell leukemia.
- Family history. Having a first-degree relative (parent or sibling) who has had CLL increases a person’s chance for getting CLL.
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