Each year more than 60,000 people are expected to be diagnosed with some type of leukemia. Leukemia accounts for 3.6 percent of all new cancer cases. (1) According to the National Cancer Institute, leukemia is a broad term for cancers that affect blood cells. (2) Adults over the age of 55 are most likely to be affected by leukemia; however, children can also develop leukemia. In fact, leukemia is the most common cancer in children younger than 15. Early leukemia symptoms can sometimes be vague and confused with other illnesses or conditions.
What causes leukemia? It’s not entirely clear why some people develop leukemia and others don’t; however, risk factors that seem to play a part in some cases of leukemia include: genetic factors, family history, exposure to certain chemicals, smoking, and having been treated for another type of cancer with radiation or chemotherapy.
Is leukemia curable? Advances in leukemia treatment have come a long way in the past several decades. For example, the overall five-year survival rate for leukemia has more than quadrupled since 1960. Almost 60 percent of leukemia patients now survive five years or more after receiving a diagnosis. Leukemia treatment options include chemotherapy, radiation, biological therapy, stem cell transplants, and others. While leukemia cannot always be prevented, healthy lifestyle and dietary habits may help limit your risk and help you recover with treatment.
What Is Leukemia?
The definition of leukemia is “Cancer that starts in blood-forming tissue, such as the bone marrow, and causes large numbers of abnormal blood cells to be produced and enter the bloodstream.” (3) In addition to affecting the body’s blood-forming tissues, leukemia also impacts the lymphatic system, making it more difficult to fight off infections.
Leukemia is the most common cancer in children and adolescents/teens, especially the type called acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), and, to a lesser extent, acute myeloid leukemia (AML). Leukemia is estimated to account for almost 1 out of 3 cancers in children and teens.
Some people refer to leukemia as a group of blood cancers. Blood cancers affect the production and function of your blood cells and usually start in bone marrow where blood is produced. It’s common for white blood cells to be affected by leukemia, which normally have the role of protecting the body from pathogens and infections. In many cases of leukemia the bone marrow produces abnormal white blood cells that don’t function as they normally would, leading to decreased immunity and reoccurring infections. Low white blood cells, low platelets and abnormal red blood cells are the underlying causes of widespread leukemia symptoms.
Leukemia prognosis (the chance that the patient will recover and survive) depends on a number of factors, for example: the patient’s age, their overall health, history of any other cancer, genetics, and whether they have been treated for cancer in the past. Treating leukemia as soon as possible can help to improve survival rates.
Signs & Symptoms of Leukemia
Leukemia symptoms vary from person to person depending on the specific type of leukemia they have. Early leukemia symptoms can also sometimes be vague and confused with other illnesses or conditions, such as a temporary fever, the flu, or autoimmune condition.
Some of the most common leukemia symptoms can include: (4)
- Symptoms of a fever, including weakness and chills
- Ongoing fatigue/exhaustion
- Frequent or severe infections
- Unintended weight loss and loss of appetite, sometimes due to stomach pains and feelings of fullness
- Swollen lymph nodes (called lymphadenitis)
- Enlarged spleen or liver
- Prolonged or easy bleeding and/or bruising, due to low blood platelet counts. This can also cause nosebleeds
- Tiny red spots that develop on the skin (called petechiae)
- Excessive sweating, including having “night sweats” when sleeping
- Bone pain or tenderness
- Pale skin due to anemia
- Feeling cold
- Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
- Shortness of breath and/or coughing
- Swelling in the face and arms
Many leukemia symptoms are caused by low red blood cell counts (anemia), since red blood cells are needed to carry oxygen to all of the cells in the body. Certain leukemia symptoms, such as reoccurring infections, can be due to low white blood cells.
Thrombocytopenia, or having low levels of platelets, is another common and significant problem in many patients with leukemia, especially those with acute leukemia (myelogenous and lymphocytic) or advanced chronic leukemias. (5) Thrombocytopenia can cause excessive bleeding and symptoms such as skin and gingival bleeding, gastrointestinal, intracranial, retinal, or pulmonary bleeding.
There are many different types of leukemia that both children and adults can suffer from. Even though the different types are all referred to as leukemia, not all types have much in common except for the fact that they affect the bone marrow and blood. Knowing the specific type of leukemia you have is very important because this will help you make treatment decisions and know what to expect in terms of symptoms and prognosis.
The type of leukemia that someone is diagnosed with depends on the type of blood cells that become cancerous. Leukemia types also differ when it comes to how quickly or slowly they tend to progress (called “the speed of progression”). (6) Leukemia is often described as being either acute (fast growing) or chronic (slow growing). Some forms of leukemia are more common in children, while others occur mostly or only in adults. The four broad subtypes of leukemia are acute lymphoblastic, acute myelogenous, chronic lymphocytic, and chronic myelogenous. (7)
Below is more about the different types of leukemia, classified according to how fast they progress and the type of white blood cell that’s affected:
- Acute leukemia — when abnormal blood cells are immature blood cells (blasts) that multiply rapidly, causing the disease to progress very quickly. Acute lymphocytic leukemia (or ALL) is the most common type of leukemia in young children but can also develop in adults. Acute myelogenous leukemia (or AML) is the most common type of acute leukemia in adults.
- Chronic leukemia — involves more mature blood cells that replicate or accumulate more slowly. Compared to acute leukemia, chronic leukemia tends to cause less noticeable symptoms and can go undiagnosed for much longer (sometimes years). Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (or CLL) is the most common chronic adult leukemia.
- Lymphocytic leukemia — affects lymphoid cells (or lymphocytes), which form lymphatic tissue and make up the immune system.
- Myelogenous leukemia — affects the myeloid cells, which are involved in cell differentiation and help red blood cells, white blood cells and platelet-producing cells to form.
- Hairy cell leukemia — a rare, slow-growing cancer where bone marrow makes too many B cells (lymphocytes). Abnormal B cells look “hairy” when viewed under a microscope, hence the name of the disease.
- Myelodysplastic syndromes (also called “bone marrow failure”) — the name for a group of bone marrow disorders in which bone marrow does not produce enough healthy blood cells.
- Myeloproliferative disorders — the name for a group of slow-growing blood cancers in which bone marrow makes too many abnormal red blood cells, white blood cells, or platelets.
Leukemia Causes & Risk Factors
Experts still don’t know exactly why leukemia develops, although it’s believed that it’s due to “a combination of genetic and environmental factors.” (8)
Leukemia forms when someone’s blood cells acquire mutations in their DNA, changing how the cells develop and function. Cancerous cells can grow and divide more rapidly than usual, and also continue living when normally they would die. As abnormal cells continue to proliferate they “crowd out” healthy blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. One common type of DNA change that can lead to leukemia is known as a chromosome translocation, in which DNA from one chromosome breaks off and becomes attached to a different chromosome. This can negatively affect the body’s ability to control hows cells divide and to suppress tumors from forming. (9)
While there’s still a lot to learn about underlying leukemia causes, researchers have been able to identify certain risk factors that can increase your risk of developing some types of leukemia. However, it’s important to point out that many people with leukemia don’t have any known risk factors, and having a higher risk doesn’t necessarily mean someone will definitely develop leukemia.
Risk factors for leukemia
- Previous cancer treatment, including having had chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy. Any intensive treatment that suppresses the immune system may increase leukemia risk.
- Genetic disorders/abnormalities, including Down syndrome, Li-Fraumeni syndrome, neurofibromatosis and Fanconi anemia. Genetic factors that are inherited from a child’s parents can increase the risk of childhood leukemia, however most cases of leukemia are not linked to any known genetic causes. (10)
- Exposure to certain toxins/chemicals, including benzene found in gasoline, pesticides and radiation therapy.
- Being over the age of 70.
- Being a male.
- Being caucasian, especially of Russian Jewish or Eastern European Jewish descent.
- Smoking or drinking too much alcohol.
- Family history of leukemia or having a sibling with leukemia.
- In children, conditions that affect the immune system including Ataxia-telangiectasia, Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome, Bloom syndrome or Schwachman-Diamond syndrome.
- Obesity or being very overweight.
- Too much sun exposure
Leukemia can be diagnosed using many different tests that include:
- Physical exam, in which which a patient’s doctor will look for any physical signs of leukemia and discuss symptoms.
- Blood tests, to check for abnormal levels of red or white blood cells or platelets. In some cases, someone may not have any noticeable leukemia symptoms but be diagnosed with chronic leukemia during a routine blood exam. Others might visit their doctor because they are developing infections, fatigue, and other symptoms due to low white blood cells or anemia.
- Bone marrow test or biopsy, to look for leukemia cells.
- Peripheral blood smear, to check if cells look “hairy.”
- Cytogenetic analysis, to check for chromosomal abnormalities.
- Comprehensive gene profile to look for certain genes.
- CT scan, to look for swollen lymph nodes or an enlarged spleen.
The stage or grade of cancer that someone has refers to how much their cancer has progressed and/or spread throughout their body. Leukemia is not staged like most other cancers because it doesn’t involve a tumor developing and spreading. It starts in the bone marrow and quickly moves to the blood, so leukemia cells are almost always spreading throughout the body. As the disease progresses, leukemia cells can affect other parts of the body including the liver, spleen, lymph nodes, testicles, or central nervous system (brain and spinal cord).
There are several systems that are used to classify leukemia, including the French-American-British (FAB) classification and World Health Organization (WHO) classification. Th acute types of leukemia are usually staged based on the type of cell involved and how the cells look under a microscope. (11) Instead of staging acute leukemia, some doctors prefer to use the classifications: untreated (symptoms are being managed), in remission (the number of abnormal cells is low and there are no symptoms), and recurrent (when the disease has returned after being treated).
Chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), a slower-growing cancer, is usually divided into three phases: the chronic phase, accelerated phase, and blast/crisis phase. These phases are based on the percentage of immature white blood cells (or blasts) that are found in blood or bone marrow. Chronic phase (earliest phase) is when less than 10 percent blasts are found in blood or bone marrow samples, accelerated phase is when bone marrow or blood samples have more than 10 percent but fewer than 20 percent blasts, and blast phase is when bone marrow and/or blood samples have more than 20 percent blasts. (12)
Conventional Leukemia Symptoms Treatments
Treatment for leukemia depends on the type of leukemia that someone has, the stage of their cancer, as well as other factors like their symptoms and age. Conventional treatment options for leukemia include: (13)
- Chemotherapy — Used to target and kill leukemia cells. Chemo can involve a single drug or a combination of drugs that are used either in pill or injection form.
- Radiation therapy — Damages leukemia cells using X-rays or other high-energy beams. Radiation can also be used to prepare a patient for a stem cell transplant.
- Biological therapy — Helps a patient’s immune system recognize and attack leukemia cells. This treatment is most commonly used for chronic leukemia.
- Targeted therapy — Stops certain actions of abnormal cells.
- Stem cell transplant (blood and bone marrow) — Replaces diseased bone marrow with healthy bone marrow via infusion of blood-forming stem cells. Chemotherapy or radiation therapy are first used to destroy diseased bone marrow. Healthy stem cells can come from the patient’s own body, or more commonly from a donor.
- Medications — Some drugs may help improve symptoms of chronic leukemia, such as psychostimulants and antidepressants.
Certain lifestyle habits and dietary changes can also help make leukemia treatment more manageable and successful.
4 Natural Ways to Help Manage Leukemia Symptoms
1. Manage Fatigue & Anemia
Some people experience leukemia symptoms such as exhaustion so strongly that it interferes with daily activities, work and their mental health. You may not be able to completely treat fatigue or gain all your energy back, but some tips may be able to help. (14)
- If anemia is causing fatigue, talk to your doctor or a dietician about changing your diet. It’s a good idea to visit a dietitian to make sure you are consuming enough calories, fluids, and nutrients to support recovery. Your diet can be tailored depending on factors like your serum iron level, total iron-binding capacity, ferritin level (protein in cells that stores iron), folate level, and vitamin B12 level. Malnutrition and side effects or symptoms (such as loss of appetite, nausea, or vomiting) can result from either the cancer itself or the cancer treatment. This may change your dietary needs, so always make sure to address this.
- Try to stay active and engage in enjoyable exercise if possible. This may help you sleep better and reduce pain. Before starting an exercise program, always consult with your doctor to make sure it’s safe.
- Talk to your doctor about any drugs you might be taking that are making fatigue worse (such as pain killers). You may need to change your dosage or try another medication.
- If fatigue occurs with depression, consider psychosocial support like cognitive behavioral therapy, stress management techniques, and other coping strategies.
- Adjust your sleep habits to encourage a good’s night sleep. Try not to nap during the day for more than 30 minutes. Do something relaxing before bedtime such as taking a warm bath or shower, reading, writing in a journal, or meditation. Try to stick to a regular sleep-wake cycle by going to sleep at roughly the same time each night. Keep your bedroom cool, quiet and dark. Avoid caffeine, alcohol or high-sugar foods before bedtime. Don’t do any activity before bed that involves blue light exposure, such as using a computer or your phone, video games, or even watching television.
2. Help Control Fever & Nausea
The tips below can help you cope with leukemia symptoms including fever, nausea, headaches and loss of appetite.
- Stay hydrated. Aim to drink one to two liters of water per day. Have a glass of water at least every two to three hours or whenever you feel thirsty. Limit alcohol and caffeine consumption, which have diuretic effects and worsen dehydration. Other hydrating drinks that also support your immune system include herbal teas, tea with lemon juice and manuka honey, fresh squeezed vegetable juices, bone broth and coconut water.
- Apply a cool compress to your forehead, neck or any inflamed area to reduce pain and swelling. Do this for 10–15 minutes a few times daily until the swelling goes down. Adding 1–2 drops of tea tree oil and/or oregano oil to the compress will also help to fight infections and lymphadenitis.
- Inhale peppermint essential oil or rub it into your neck and chest.
- Get some fresh air, open a window and take a walk outside.
- If you’re nauseated, eat smaller meals spread throughout the day. Sit up for about an hour after eating to relieve any pressure on the stomach. Try to eat at least three hours before bed to help you digest.
- Support your immune system with supplements including: vitamin C, astragalus root, garlic, ginger, a probiotic supplement, and omega-3 fatty acids.
3. Find Support
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, anxious or depressed about your diagnosis, you’re not alone; this is a common reaction to being diagnosed with a serious illness. It’s also possible that anticancer medications may contribute to increased feelings of anxiety, isolation and depression. Consider speaking about your leukemia symptoms with someone who can help, such as a therapist/counselor, medical social worker, clergy member, cancer survivor, or cancer support group leader.
You can find information about support groups by visiting the National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society or the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s (LLS) websites.
4. Reduce Stress & Practice Self-Care
The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society recommends these tips for dealing with difficult feelings during treatment and recovery:
- Don’t isolate yourself or blame yourself. Connect with people and activities that are separate from your cancer diagnosis.
- Set small, manageable goals for yourself as you start feeling better, such as cooking dinner, taking a walk, going out with a friend, etc.
- Try to stay mildly active. Consider getting fresh air while you walk outside, or taking a gentle yoga class.
- Do any other stress-relieving activities that lift your mood, such as practicing yoga, meditation and breathing exercises, spending time outside, joining a faith-based community, using essential oils like lavender, chamomile or holy basil, taking an Epsom salt bath before bed to relax muscular tension, journaling, reading, and so on.
The American Cancer Society tells us that “There are very few known lifestyle-related or environmental causes of childhood leukemias, so it is important to know that in most cases there is nothing these children or their parents could have done to prevent these cancers.” While leukemia cannot always be prevented, especially in children if a genetic factor is the cause, making certain lifestyle changes may help lower adults’ risk.
- Eat a healthy diet and avoid inflammatory foods. Include a variety of whole foods, especially brightly-colored fruits and vegetables, in your meals each day. A balanced diet that provides sufficient fluids, calories, protein, vitamins and minerals and iron will also help decrease symptoms associated with leukemia, such as fatigue. Try to include cancer-fighting foods in your diet, such as: all types of leafy green veggies, cruciferous vegetables, berries (blueberries, raspberries, cherries, strawberries, goji berries, camu camu and blackberries), kiwi, citrus fruits, orange and yellow-colored plant foods (like sweet potatoes, berries, pumpkin, squashes and other plant foods), plus organic meats, wild-caught fish, eggs and raw/fermented dairy products, nuts, seeds and healthy fats like coconut oil, olive oil, ghee, grass-fed butter, and avocados. Manuka honey, garlic, herbs, spices and apple cider vinegar are also supportive of your immune system and help to fight lymphadenitis.
- Quit smoking, drinking more than moderate amounts of alcohol, and using tobacco or other drugs. For help with quitting smoking, talk to your doctor about useful interventions; speak with a therapist; or start an online program that specializes in smoking cessation.
- Limit your exposure to toxins, chemicals and pollutants at work as much as possible. If you’ve been treated with chemotherapy or radiation in the past, talk to your doctor about your risk for developing illnesses, including leukemia, as a result.
- Know your family history. Have your children screened at a young age if you have any family members with leukemia or cancers that affect the lymphatic system. Early treatment can help to improve recovery.
- Maintain a healthy weight by eating a nutrient-dense diet and staying active. Exercise helps boost the immune system and can help prevent obesity.
If you start experiencing new, unexplained symptoms such as fever, weakness, pain or exhaustion that lasts more than one to two weeks, visit your doctor for an evaluation. Many leukemia symptoms can have other causes as well, so your doctor will rule out other conditions that may be to blame.
Key Points about Leukemia Symptoms
- Leukemia is a group of cancers that start in blood-forming tissue, such as the bone marrow, and cause large numbers of abnormal blood cells to be produced and enter the bloodstream. Leukemia can cause abnormal levels of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets, leading to anemia, low immunity, and widespread symptoms.
- Leukemia symptoms vary depending on the type of leukemia that someone has (chronic, acute, etc.). Leukemia symptoms can include: fatigue, weakness, susceptibility to infections, weight loss, lack of appetite, increased bleeding and bruising, swollen lymph nodes, enlarged spleen or liver, and others.
- Both children and adults can develop leukemia. In many cases, the cause of leukemia is not known. Contributing factors include: prior treatment with radiation or chemotherapy, genetics, exposure to chemicals, smoking, obesity, and a history of illness that affects the immune system.
- Leukemia cannot always be prevented, but some ways to increase protection against this disease include eating a healthy diet, exercising, and avoiding smoking and toxin exposure.
4 Natural Ways to Help Manage Leukemia Symptoms
- Managing fatigue and anemia
- Finding social/emotional support
- Treating fevers and nausea
- Practicing self care
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