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What Is Leukemia?

Leukemia is a relatively common, but poorly understood, group of cancers of the tissues that form blood cells.  There are two general categories:  acute and chronic.  These groupings are not based on symptoms or duration of the disease, but on the specific type of cells which are involved in the cancer.  The only way to make the specific diagnosis -- which is essential for proper therapy -- is with a painful test called a bone marrow biopsy.  Leukemia may affect anyone from children to the elderly.  Risk factors are few, although it can also develop as a side effect of chemotherapy or radiation treatment for other cancers.

The symptoms of leukemia are diverse and usually nonspecific -- they can mimic the flu or they can present as the symptoms of severe anemia, or low blood count:  headache, dizziness, weakness, and fatigue.  Unexplained weight loss is often seen as well.  Patients often bleed and bruise more easily and they may have bone or joint pain.

The good news is that many types of leukemia now have a favorable prognosis, especially in children and young adults.  New drug regimens are constantly being explored and several breakthroughs have recently been discovered.  Treatment regimens are complex and risky, however; whenever possible, patients should be treated at specialized cancer centers.

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Created: 4/18/2001  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

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