Leukaemia is cancer of the cells in bone marrow. Bone marrow is the tissue found inside our bones, and is where new blood cells are made.
There are several different types of leukaemia, each affecting a different type of blood cell – usually white blood cells. The word leukaemia actually comes from a Greek word which means ‘white blood.’ In this way leukaemia is similar to lymphoma, which also affects white blood cells.
Leukaemia can also either be ‘acute’ or ‘chronic’. Acute leukaemia affects young blood cells and spreads quickly. Chronic leukaemia affects more mature blood cells meaning it grows more slowly.
Acute myeloid leukaemia is a cancer of the myeloid white cells. Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia the lymphoid white cells.
Blood tests, bone marrow samples and lumbar punctures are the tests that are used to diagnose ALL. Treatment includes chemotherapy, steroids and radiotherapy.
Treatments include chemotherapy sometimes followed in extreme cases by stem cell (bone marrow) transplants. To have a bone marrow transplant, total body irradiation (intense radiotherapy) is also needed to stop the immune system rejecting the donor marrow.
Signs and symptoms
Symptoms depend on the type of leukaemia but some of the most common ones are:
- Extreme tiredness
- Pale skin
- Having repeated infections over a short space of time
- Blood clotting problems
Real life story: Jo, 15
When I was 15 I started to suffer from a loss of appetite and weight loss . I was constantly tired, and had unexplained bruises on my legs. My GP took blood tests and as soon as my local hospital got the results I was sent to London the next day.
I was diagnosed with ALL (acute lymphoblastic leukaemia) and spent two and a half years having treatment on the Teenage Cancer Trust unit at University College Hospital, London. I lived on the ward solidly for six months and most of this six month period I spent in isolation. The unit was a really nice facility and even though I was having a rough time I felt really looked after, the staff were lovely.
Cancer has really changed my life. It has changed my priorities entirely as my health now comes first. It changed my relationship with my family as I am much closer to my mum who stayed with me through every hospital visit. You realise who your true friends are after an experience like this.