Leukemia is a type of cancer in which the body produces large numbers of abnormal (usually white) blood cells. About 28,500 new cases of leukemia are diagnosed each year. There are several types of leukemia, grouped as either acute (the diseases progresses rapidly) or chronic (the diseases progresses slowly). The most common leukemias are:
- Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), which comprises 90% of all leukemias in children (although it also occurs in adults)
- Acute myelocytic leukemia (AML), which mostly occurs in adults
- Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), which mostly strikes adults over age 55
- Chronic myelocytic leukemia (CML), which mostly occurs in adults
Signs and Symptoms
Signs and symptoms of leukemia include:
- Abnormal paleness
- Weight loss
- Shortness of breath
- Easy bruising
- Repeated infections
- Bone pain
- Abdominal pain
- Skin irritations or rashes
What Causes It?
Most causes of leukemia are not known. Several genetic and environmental factors are associated with childhood leukemia. The disease has also been linked to exposure to large amounts of high energy radiation (from nuclear bombs), occupational exposure to the chemical benzene, viral infections, and chemicals from cigarettes.
Who Is Most At Risk?
Leukemia is linked to the following risk factors:
- Males are at greater risk than females
- Increasing age
- Genetic diseases, such as Fanconi's anemia or Down syndrome
- Acquired diseases, such as Hodgkin's disease
- First degree relative with leukemia
- Excessive exposure to ionizing radiation
- Chemical exposure (benzene)
- Certain drugs
- Chromosomal abnormalities
- Cigarette smoking
What to Expect at Your Doctor's Office
If you or your child has symptoms associated with leukemia, see your child's doctor. Your child's doctor can make a diagnosis and help you determine which treatment or combination of therapies will work best.
Your child's doctor will do a physical examination, checking for swelling in the liver, the spleen, and the lymph nodes, and will order certain laboratory tests. The bone marrow is examined for leukemia cells or to determine the type of leukemia. A lumbar puncture ("spinal tap") checks for leukemia cells in the fluid around the brain and spinal cord. Chest x-rays can reveal signs of the disease in the chest.
Some leukemias can be prevented by avoiding exposure to benzene, nicotine, or radiation.
Leukemia is an extremely complex disease. Treatment depends on the type of leukemia, certain features of the leukemic cells, the extent of the disease, and whether the leukemia has been treated before. Whenever possible, a patient with leukemia should be treated at a medical center that specializes in the disease.
Some of the drug therapies used to treat leukemia include the following:
- Radiation therapy -- the use of high energy rays to kill cancer cells and prevent them from growing.
- Chemotherapy -- the use of drugs to kill cancer cells.
- Steroids -- to suppress muscle inflammation and reduce the activity of the immune system.
- Bone marrow transplantation -- a procedure in which cancerous bone marrow is destroyed with high doses of anticancer drugs or radiation, then replaced with healthy bone marrow.
- Biological therapy -- stimulates or restores the immune system's ability to fight infection and disease. May also help reduce side effects caused by other treatments.
Surgical and Other Procedures
Surgeries may include:
- Lumbar puncture
- Bone marrow transplant
- Splenectomy (removal of the spleen)
- Stem cell transplant
Complementary and Alternative Therapies
A comprehensive treatment plan for leukemia may include a range of complementary and alternative therapies (CAM). Individuals should educate themselves and keep all medical providers fully informed regarding any and all CAM therapies they are using, both prescribed drugs and dietary supplements. While supplements and herbal therapies may be an important component of a comprehensive cancer care program, some supplements and herbs may interfere with conventional cancer care, and new research about these interactions is emerging every day. Work with a knowledgeable physician and inform all of your health care providers about any herbs and supplements you are using or considering using.
Nutrition and Supplements
Following these nutritional tips may help reduce symptoms:
- Try to eliminate potential food allergens, including dairy (milk, cheese, and butter), wheat (gluten), corn, soy, preservatives, and food additives. Your health care provider may want to test for food sensitivities.
- Eat antioxidant rich foods, including fruits (such as blueberries, cherries, and tomatoes) and vegetables (such as kale, spinach, and bell peppers).
- Avoid refined foods, such as white breads, pasta, and sugar.
- Eat healthy protein favoring free-range, organic sources.
- Use healthy oils in cooking, such as coconut oil. Be sure to cook olive oil under medium to low heat to prevent carcinogens from forming.
- Reduce or eliminate trans fatty acids found in commercially-baked goods, such as cookies, crackers, cakes, French fries, onion rings, donuts, processed foods, and margarine.
- Avoid coffee and other stimulants, alcohol, and tobacco.
- Drink 6 to 8 glasses of filtered water daily.
- Exercise lightly, if possible. Speak with your doctor about a regimen that is right for you.
You may address nutritional deficiencies with the following supplements:
- Probiotic supplement (containing Lactobacillus acidophilus), 5 to 10 billion CFUs (colony forming units) a day, for maintenance of gastrointestinal and immune health. Some probiotic supplements may need refrigeration. Check the label carefully. Probiotics may not be appropriate for people who are severely immune compromised. Speak with your doctor.
- Omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish oil, 1 to 2 capsules or 1 tbsp. of oil 1 to 2 times daily, to help reduce inflammation. Fish oils may increase bleeding in sensitive individuals, such as those taking blood-thinning mediations (including aspirin).
Although few studies have examined the effectiveness of specific homeopathic therapies, professional homeopaths may consider the following remedies for the treatment of gastritis symptoms (such as nausea and vomiting) based on their knowledge and experience. Before prescribing a remedy, homeopaths take into account your constitutional type -- your physical, emotional, and psychological makeup. An experienced homeopath assesses all of these factors when determining the most appropriate treatment for an individual.
Homeopathy may help reduce symptoms and strengthen overall constitution and may help lessen the side effects of chemotherapy.
- Radium bromatum is specific for radiation poisoning, especially followed by arthritic complaints. Acute dose is 3 to 5 pellets of 12X to 30C every 1 to 4 hours until symptoms are relieved.
Acupuncture may alleviate symptoms. Acupuncture may help to enhance immune function, normalize digestion, and address disease conditions. For many patients and physicians, acupuncture has become one of the most widely used alternative interventions in cancer therapy support.
Repeated infections complicate most cases of leukemia. Kidney failure or impaired function, and a decreasing number of neutrophils (a type of white blood cell), are also common complications. Treatments for leukemia can have serious side effects.
The prognosis for people with leukemia varies by the type of leukemia. ALL patients have the best prognosis, with a 5-year survival rate of 80%.
Patients with leukemia undergo extensive follow up care, including daily exams to check for infections and bleeding, weekly bone marrow biopsies after chemotherapy has begun, post remission chemotherapy, treatment for central nervous system conditions, and monitoring of urinary function.
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