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Understanding Leukemia

Leukemia is the abnormal increase in white blood cells, which drown out the other blood cell components. These white blood cells are undifferentiated and do not function properly. Leukemia is often thought of as a pediatric disease, and this could not be further from the truth. Statistically, leukemia affects more adults than children, and its incidence is higher in men than women.

There are three main blood cell types contained in the blood: white blood cells, which partially form the immune system, red blood cells that carry and transport oxygen throughout the body, and platelets that take part in clot formation. These are all suspended in a liquid medium known as plasma. Every single day, new blood cells, the majority of which are red cells, are produced in the bone marrows. However, in leukemia, more undifferentiated immature white blood cells are produced that live well beyond their normal life span. Being undifferentiated and immature, leukemia cells are unable to function the way white blood cells are supposed to, i.e. to fight infection. As more of these cells are formed, the function of vital organs is affected. This includes the production of healthy blood cells and, eventually, there won’t be enough red blood cells to transport and supply oxygen to the other cells. In addition, there won't be not enough platelets, which leads to bleeding tendencies, and will there be enough normal white blood cells to resist infection. All these leads to the common symptoms that are associated with leukemia, i.e. anemia, easy bruising, easy bleeding, and easy infection.

Cases of leukemia will be classified as acute or chronic. In acute leukemia, the immature cells start multiplying aggressively at an early stage. In chronic leukemia, the disease progresses much more slowly. Leukemia is then classified further as myeloid or lymphoid, depending on the cell types involved.

Until now, a singular cause of leukemia has not been identified. However, certain chromosomal abnormalities have been found to be associated with leukemia. For example, the Philadelphia Chromosome has been associated with Chronic Myeloid Leukemia and Acute Lymphoid Leukemia. Fortunately, this chromosome abnormality is acquired and will not be passed down to their offspring.

Genetic disorders that are associated with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) include Down syndrome and Bloom syndrome. HTLV-1 virus, an onco-virus which belongs in the same family as the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), has also been associated with leukemia.

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