Leukemia occurs when large numbers of abnormal white blood cells are produced, leaving the body with too few healthy red and white blood cells and platelets. Those shortages impair the body’s ability to fight infections and clot blood.
The two most common types of leukemia are granulocytic leukemia (also called myelogenous leukemia) and lymphocytic leukemia. Both types may be acute or chronic. Fever, infections, weight loss and symptoms of anemia (fatigue, low exercise endurance, pallor) are symptoms common to all types of leukemia.
Other symptoms of acute granulocytic leukemia include lip and mouth ulcers and a tendency to bruise and bleed easily. Unless treated, the disease can be fatal within weeks. Treatment includes transfusions of red blood cells and platelets, antibiotics, chemotherapy, radiation and bone-marrow transplantation.
The main symptoms of chronic granulocytic leukemia are loss of appetite, weight loss, fever and night sweats. The disease usually responds well to treatment, which may include drug therapy or chemotherapy. Bone-marrow transplants are often recommended to avoid a relapse. If a relapse occurs, the cancer may return in its more dangerous, acute form.
Acute lymphocytic leukemia occurs mainly in children. Symptoms include abnormal bruising, bleeding from mucous membranes and bone pain. With the proper combination of cancer drugs, up to 70 percent of children are in complete remission five years after diagnosis.
Ninety percent of chronic lymphocytic leukemia occurs in people older than 50. This form of leukemia often produces no symptoms in its earliest stages and is discovered when a blood test is ordered for another purpose. Symptoms may eventually include enlarged lymph nodes and a feeling of fullness in the upper left abdomen caused by an enlarged spleen. Chemotherapy is used to treat chronic lymphocytic leukemia, although treatment usually isn’t started until symptoms are present.