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  • What is leukemia?


    Leukemia, also spelled as leukaemia, is a type of blood cancer that occurs when there is a rapid growth of abnormal white blood cells in the bone marrow.

    This condition involves white blood cells, which are an important part of the immune system that fight infections. Leukemia happens when abnormalities cause the bone marrow to make immature white blood cells (leukemic cells) that outnumber and crowd out the healthy cells.

    Leukemia can be either acute (worsens quickly) or chronic (worsens slowly).

    The types of leukemia are:

    • Acute myeloid leukemia – common in both children and adults, and is the most common type of acute leukemia in adults
    • Acute lymphocytic leukemia – most common in young children
    • Chronic myeloid leukemia – mainly affects adults, and may display few or no symptoms for months or even years
    • Chronic lymphocytic leukemia – common type of chronic leukemia in adults
    • Hairy cell leukemias and large granular lymphocyte – rarer types of leukemias
  • Leukemia is generally thought to be caused by mutations (changes) in the DNA of the blood cells, resulting in them not functioning normally.

    The exact causes of leukemia are not known. However, risk factors may include:

    • Family history of leukemia
    • Genetic disorders, such as Down’s syndrome
    • Exposure to radiation, or chemicals such as benzene
    • Having an impaired immune system (or people who take drugs that suppress their immune system)
    • Developing certain infections, including the Epstein-Barr virus and Helicobacter pylori infection

    Leukemia can also develop in people who have received certain types of chemotherapy for previous cancer treatment.

  • The early signs and symptoms of leukemia may vary, depending on the type of leukemia a person has. They may also be difficult to spot as they resemble other conditions. Common symptoms of leukemia include:

    • Bleeding or bruising easily or tiny red spots on your skin
    • Bone pain or tenderness
    • Fever or chills
    • Frequent infections
    • Loss of appetite or weight loss
    • Ongoing tiredness or weakness
    • Shortness of breath or excessive sweating, especially at night
    • Swollen lymph nodes (glands), large liver or spleen
  • If you experience signs or symptoms that suggest leukemia, your doctor may carry out the following diagnostic tests:

    • Blood tests – to determine unusual levels of red or white blood cells or platelets
    • Bone marrow test – to look for leukemia cells by removing a sample of bone marrow from your hipbone
    • Cytogenetic and molecular tests – to help characterise the leukemia type
    • Physical examination – to look for outward signs of leukemia, such as pale skin from ongoing fatigue or tiny spots on the skin
    Bone marrow test
  • Treatment options are dependent on the person's age and health, the type of leukemia a person has have, and whether it has spread to other parts of the body, including the central nervous system.

    Your doctor may recommend treatment options involving:

    Treatment at Mount Elizabeth Hospitals

    At Mount Elizabeth Hospitals, we treat both common and uncommon types of blood disorders and cancers, such as leukemia.

    Our hematopathologists, who specialise in diseases of the blood, work closely with Parkway Cancer Centre care team to ensure an accurate diagnosis of this complex disease, which has many variations and rare forms.

    The multidisciplinary team includes haematologists, pathologists, radiologists, dermatologists, respiratory physicians, renal physicians, cardiologists, neurologists, and physiotherapists.

    Our experienced specialists also perform bone marrow biopsies, which are done routinely for patients with blood disorders, especially for those with malignancies like leukemia.

    Haematology and Stem Cell Transplant Centre, located at Mount Elizabeth Orchard Hospital, is headed by Dr Patrick Tan, a haematologist with more than 30 years of experience in the treatment of blood disorders including leukemia, and in performing bone marrow transplants.

    Parkway Cancer Centre, which also runs the Children’s Haematology & Cancer Centre, provides specialised clinical care, including diagnostic evaluation and chemotherapy, for children and adults with blood diseases.

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