I have a friend who is diagnosed with Leukemia. I would like to know what it is and what the survival rate for Leukemia is.

—Good friend

Dear Good friend,

What a great thing that you want to learn more about what is happening with your friend. Leukemia is a general term for several types of cancers characterized by a proliferation of disorganized white blood cells in the bone marrow. It is thought that leukemia results from the mutation of a single white cell that alters its genetic structure. The cell uncontrollably divides until there are billions of copies of this abnormal cell which infiltrate the bone marrow and bloodstream. Diagnosis of all forms of leukemia is done through some combination of a physical exam, blood tests, analysis of chromosomes, and/or bone marrow biopsy.

There are four major types of leukemia, classified by how rapidly the disease progresses and which type of white blood cell is affected. In acute leukemia, the abnormal cells are immature blood cells, called blasts, that don't work properly and multiply rapidly. In chronic leukemia, the abnormal blood cells are mature, multiple more slowly, and can still function for a period of time. Acute leukemia therefore worsens more rapidly than chronic leukemia.

Meanwhile, the two types of white blood cell that can be affected are lymphoid cells (lymphocytes) and myeloid cells. Leukemia of the lymphoid cells is called lymphocytic leukemia and affects cells that form the tissues of the immune system throughout the body. Leukemia of the myeloid cells is known as myelogenous leukemia. This type involves cells that develop into red and white blood cells and platelet-producing cells.

Each type of leukemia has a different population that it typically affects, as well as different survival rates:

Acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) is the most common overall and can occur in adults and, more rarely, children. The relative survival rate is about 20% overall and 53% for children under 15.

Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) is the most common type in children. The relative survival rate is around 65% overall, but 91% for children under 5.

Chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) is usually seen in adults that have a certain chromosomal abnormality. The overall relative survival rate is about 42%.

Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) is almost always found in adults, and the rate is higher in Jewish people of Russian and Eastern European descent. The relative survival rate is about 74%.

Symptoms vary depending on the type of leukemia, but can include:

  • weight loss
  • fatigue
  • anemia
  • enlarged lymph nodes, liver, or spleen
  • bruising easily
  • bone pain
  • frequent infections

There are several different treatment options available, including chemotherapy, certain medications, radiation, transfusions, and stem cell or bone marrow transplants. The treatments used depend on the type of leukemia, how far the disease has progressed, and the age and health of the patient. Acute leukemias are often treated more aggressively than chronic ones. Your friend will want to talk with her/his doctor(s) to decide on the best course of action.

If you want even more information, you can talk with your own health care provider, talk with your friend, or check out the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society website.


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