Over 30,600 Americans are diagnosed with leukemia every year. Of this number, approximately half are diagnosed with ALL or AML, the acute forms of the disease. Acute leukemia progresses rapidly: without immediate treatment, survival time is measured in months. With treatment, the prognosis is much more positive, and many cases of acute leukemia can be kept in remission, or even cured.
How Does the Disease Progress?
Leukemia is a cancer that begins in the bone marrow, where blood cells are developed. Abnormal white blood cells (WBC) begin to reproduce, accumulating in the bloodstream and bone marrow and crowding out healthy white blood cells, red blood cells (RBC), and platelets. Left unchecked, the disease may spread to other organs, usually the liver and the spleen. Acute vs. Chronic
High levels of immature white blood cells are characteristic of the acute forms of the cancer. Abnormal cells are unable to reach maturity, and reproduce at a rapid rate. Chronic varieties of the disease do not progress as rapidly. In chronic types, abnormal cells mature, although they cannot function as effectively as healthy WBCs. The abnormal WBCs are, however, very long-lived, and essentially outlive other blood cells.
Chronic forms of the cancer are often only diagnosed after abnormalities appear on routine blood tests: symptoms are not present until the disease has reached the advanced stages. Given the speed with which the acute versions progress, diagnoses are more often made when people complain about their symptoms.
Types of Acute Leukemia
Two acute forms of the cancer have been identified, and are classified according to WBC type.
Acute myelogenous leukemia, or AML, involves cells of the myeloid lineage, including precursors of granulocytes, monocytes and platelets.
Acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or ALL, affects cells of the lymphoid lineage. These cells include B and T lymphocytes. Normally, B lymphocytes produce the antibodies that target microorganisms and foreign particles, whereas T lymphocytes are involved in recognizing and eradicating infected cells.
Acute Leukemia Symptoms: Anemia, Fever and More
Leukemia symptoms can be vague. Anemia and fever, for instance, can suggest a number of different diseases. A medical diagnosis is required to verify that the symptoms are indeed caused by cancer.
Most of the symptoms can be traced back to imbalances in the blood count. Low levels of red blood cells, for instance, lead to anemia. Low platelet levels interfere with normal clotting abilities, leading to severe bleeding and easy bruising. As abnormal WBCs crowd out healthy cells, people become more susceptible to infections.
Common symptoms include:
heightened rate of infection
abdominal swelling (caused by swollen liver or spleen)
swollen lymph nodes.