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About Cancer

Leukemia and Lymphoma

What is Leukemia?
Leukemia is cancer of the blood or bone marrow. It is characterized by an abnormal multiplication of blood cells, usually white blood cells. In the beginning, leukemia cells function almost normally; however, they may eventually crowd out normal white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets, making it difficult for blood to do its work.

Leukemia is either chronic (progresses slowly) or acute (progresses quickly). The leukemia types are characterized by the quickness and severity of the disease:

  • Chronic leukemia - In the early stages of the disease, the abnormal blood cells can still do their job. People with chronic leukemia may never have any symptoms. In time, chronic leukemia worsens and causes symptoms as the number of leukemia cells in the blood rises.
  • Acute leukemia - In acute leukemia, the blood cells are very abnormal and cannot carry out their normal duties. The number of abnormal cells increases rapidly and the disease worsens quickly.

Risk Factors for Leukemia
Studies have found the following risk factors for leukemia:

  • Very high levels of radiation - People exposed to extreme levels of radiation (such as nuclear power plant accidents) are much more likely than others to develop leukemia.
  • Working with certain chemicals - Exposure to high levels of benzene in the workplace can cause leukemia.

Common Symptoms of Leukemia Patients with leukemia may have a number of symptoms, depending on how many abnormal cells there are and where they collect.

The common symptoms of leukemia can include:

  • Fever or night sweats
  • Frequent infections
  • Unexplainable weight loss
  • Pain in the bones or joints
  • Swollen lymph nodes, especially in the neck or armpit
  • Bleeding and bruising easily (bleeding gums, purple patches in the skin)
  • Feeling weak or tired

Treatment and Diagnosis
A diagnosis begins with a physical exam, recording medical history and family history. The doctor may proceed with one or more of the following:

  • Physical exam
  • Blood test
  • Biopsy

Similar to other cancers, treatment depends on a number of factors. These factors include the type of leukemia, the patient's age, whether leukemia cells are present in the cerebrospinal fluid, and whether the leukemia has been treated before. The type of treatment may also depend on certain features of the leukemia cells as well as the patient's symptoms and general health.

What is Lymphoma?
Lymphoma is a broad term for a group of cancers that emanate in the lymphatic system. The lymphomas are split into two major categories: Hodgkin's lymphoma and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Approximately 56 percent of the blood cancers that are reported each year are lymphomas.

When a lymphocyte (a type of white blood cell) undergoes a malignant change and multiplies, lymphoma results. Healthy cells are pushed out and tumors begin to form. These tumors can enlarge the lymph nodes or other parts of the immune system. Lymphomas usually originate in lymph nodes or collections of lymphatic tissue in organs such as the stomach or intestines. It is possible that lymphomas may spread to other parts of the body.

Risk Factors for Lymphoma
Experts are still uncertain as to the cause of most lymphomas but it is thought that most are probably caused by mutations in certain genes, called oncogenes, which then allow normal cells to divide out of control.

Certain factors may increase a person's chance in getting the disease:

  • Exposure to certain solvents, pesticides, herbicides and water contaminated with nitrate
  • Taking drugs that suppress the immune system
  • Having an autoimmune disease such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis
  • Having stomach ulcers or gastritis caused by a certain kind of bacteria
  • Having a weakened immune system (as with AIDS)

Common Symptoms of Lymphoma
A painless lump or swollen gland in the neck, abdomen, underarm, or groin area is usually the first sign of lymphoma.

Other symptoms may include:

  • Red patches on the skin
  • Nausea, vomiting, or abdominal pain
  • Coughing or breathlessness

Treatment and Diagnosis
The way treatment is administered depends on the type of lymphoma.

Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy is a treatment that uses drugs to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma typically involves a combination of several drugs.

Bone Marrow Transplant: A form of chemotherapy, called high-dose chemotherapy (HDCT), uses very high doses of toxic drugs to kill all possible tumor cells. These elevated doses kill most of the bone marrow, so patients then undergo a bone marrow transplant to restore their ability to make new red and white blood cells.

Biological Therapy: Also known as biological response modifier therapy (BRMT), this procedure uses chemicals made by the body's own cells in order to activate the body's defenses against cancer. Although biological therapy is still experimental, doctors hope that they will soon be capable of treating most forms of cancer using these therapies. Biological therapy is most successful when combined with treatments like chemotherapy and radiation therapy.