What is leukaemia?
Leukaemia is the medical name for cancer of the blood. The abnormality occurs
in the bone marrow resulting in the overproduction of highly abnormal white
blood cells. There are several types of leukaemia depending on which type of
white cell is affected. The remaining healthy cells in the bone marrow have
less space in which to develop, which means that less red blood cells and platelets
Leukaemia is broadly classified into two forms, acute and chronic. Chronic
leukaemia is the slower of the two, involving more mature types of cell. Acute
leukaemia attacks immature bone marrow cells, and has a much more sudden onset.
It is the rarer form of leukaemia and tends to afflict children and younger
people more often than older people.
The causes of leukaemia are unknown, but the disease does seem to occur in
more males than females. In Ireland in 1995, 204 males compared to 104 females
were diagnosed with leukaemia.
How does leukaemia occur?
The causes of leukaemia are not known, but research is ongoing. It is hoped
that future genetic research may cast some light on the origins of this disease.
What are the symptoms of leukaemia?
Leukaemia usually requires blood tests to confirm diagnosis, but it does manifest
symptoms, very suddenly in the case of acute leukaemia. The things to look out
- Repeated niggling infections, such as chest infections or sore throats
- Pale skin, due to anaemia
- Unexplained or easy bruising
- Weight loss
- Night sweats and fevers
Chronic leukaemia typically occurs in older people and usually presents with
enlargement of the lymph glands in the neck, armpits and groin.
If you experience more than one of these symptoms, especially if they come
on suddenly, you should consult your GP who can arrange for blood tests to check
How can leukaemia be treated?
Treatment usually takes the form of chemotherapy, which is initiated intravenously.
This requires admission to hospital. Each course of chemotherapy can last a
number of days. Usually, patients will be referred to a specialist unit, such
as the one at St. James Hospital, Dublin, for care.
In certain cases, the leukaemia may warrant a bone marrow transplant. This
procedure is generally only performed on children and young adults. The marrow
cells used must be removed from a donor and replaced in the patient, and must
be as close a match as possible. Often, the donated cells will come from a close
relative or an unrelated donor (an allogeneic transplant). A full sibling (brother
or sister) is usually the best match.
Because not everyone has a relative whose bone marrow cells match their own,
a bone marrow transplant registry is in place, based at the Blood Transfusion
Board headquarters in Dublin. Volunteer donors attend a blood transfusion clinic
for tests, and their marrow cell details are stored on a registry until needed
or until the would-be donor is 55 years of age.
These marrow donations are known as MUD (matched unrelated donor) transplants.
If you would like more information on becoming a bone marrow donor, contact
The National Bone Marrow Registry at:
40 Mespil Road,
Tel: (01) 6603333
Fax: (01) 6603419.
You can also contact them via email at email@example.com.
Where can people with leukaemia get information and support?
If you are diagnosed with leukaemia, you can be sure that you will receive
plenty of information and support from the hospital in which you are treated.
The Irish Cancer Society offers information and
support to all people with cancer, including leukaemia. They have a website
and run a telephone cancer helpline at 1800 200700.
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