You look back and you realise that everything is more meaningful.” Anne Dwyer
More than 3300* people are expected to be diagnosed with a form of leukaemia this year - equivalent to nine people every day. Leukaemia is a cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow where blood cells are made.
There are four main types of leukaemia:
- Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL)
- Acute myeloid leukaemia (AML)
- Chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL)
- Chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML)
Acute leukaemias develop quickly and need to be treated urgently. Chronic leukaemias develop more slowly and may not need to be treated for some time after they are diagnosed. Some forms may not require any treatment. Myeloid leukaemias arise from myeloid stem cells and are characterised by the accumulation of cancerous myeloid cells. Lymphoid leukaemias arise from lymphoid stem cells and are characterised by the accumulation of cancerous lymphoid cells such as B-cells and T-cells.
The most common forms of leukaemia in adults are CLL and AML, and the common cancer in children is ALL. Leukaemia is more common in adults.
How does leukaemia affect the body?
Acute leukaemias occur when abnormal white blood cells multiply rapidly and spill into the blood stream. Left untreated, these leukaemia cells crowd out the healthy cells, leaving the body starved of oxygen, with little immunity to disease or infection and unable to “plug” wounds in the skin and blood vessels. Chronic leukaemias occur when abnormal white blood cells fail to die and accumulate in the blood stream, bone marrow and related organs.
Do we know what causes leukaemia?
Factors that may affect the developement of leukaemia are not clear, however they may include genetic history, exposure to intense radiation and certain chemicals such as benzene, and viruses such as the Human T-Cell leukaemia virus.
How is leukaemia treated?
A diagnosis of acute leukaemia can require immediate and intensive treatment, often within 24 hours. This can include chemotherapy, radiotherapy, immunotherapies, stem cell transplantation, daily oral tablets or a combination of these. Without immediate treatment, mortality rates can be high. On average, treatment for AML lasts about eight months. For a child with ALL, the treatment period will be around two years for girls and three years for boys.
Acute forms of leukaemia can be cured. There is currently no cure for chronic forms, but lifelong targeted treatments may help manage some of these diseases.