Leukaemia (blood cancer)

Around 1,000 people are diagnosed with leukaemia in Switzerland every year. This makes leukaemia one of the rarer types of cancer. The disease can occur at any age. Leukaemia, in particular the acute forms, is actually the most common type of cancer in children.

Acute forms of leukaemia develop rapidly and soon cause life-threatening conditions unless they are treated quickly. Chronic types of leukaemia develop more slowly and often have a longer course before they are even discovered.

Types of leukaemia

There are different types of leukaemia (blood cancer). A distinction is firstly made between acute and chronic leukaemia. Secondly, the type of cancer is named after the blood cells which it affects.

If lymphocytes (belonging to the white blood cells) are affected, this is known as lymphocytic leukaemia. If other blood cells are affected, this is known as myeloid leukaemia.

Causes

The causes of most leukaemias are largely unclear. But all forms of leukaemia have one thing in common: they originate from precursor blood cells, also known as stem cells. The precursor cells affected by leukaemia multiply unchecked, interfering with normal blood cell production in the process.

The most common types of leukaemia are:

  • Acute lymphocytic leukaemia (ALL)
  • Acute myeloid leukaemia (AML)
  • Chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL)
  • Chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML)

However, chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) is caused by a genetic defect in chromosome 22. The defective chromosome is known as the Philadelphia chromosome, after the place where this gene defect was discovered. However, no one knows why this defect occurs.

Risk factors

Radioactive rays, specific chemicals (benzene, formaldehyde) or certain medications (cytostatics) can encourage the development of leukaemia.

Symptoms

The symptoms of leukaemia are diverse, but they can be traced back to impaired blood formation in particular. Anaemia, fatigue and respiratory distress are signs that fewer red blood cells (erythrocytes) are being formed.

If the formation of platelets (thrombocytes) is impaired, there is a tendency towards increased bleeding, possibly manifesting in nosebleeds or bleeding gums. Infectious diseases, fever and inflammation occur more frequently as leukaemia also affects the immune cells of the blood.

This often causes painful enlargement of the spleen or the liver. Patients with leukaemia may also experience bone pain as haematopoiesis occurs in the bone marrow.

Diagnosis of leukaemia

Leukaemia is diagnosed with a blood test and a bone marrow examination. A bone marrow biopsy is carried out to examine the bone marrow.

Treatment and chances of recovery

The treatment of leukaemia depends on the type of leukaemia and its course (acute or chronic). A variety of treatments are used, depending on the type and the stage of the disease. Chemotherapy and antibody therapy are two of the drug treatments used. Radiotherapy and bone marrow transplantation are also frequently used.

Nowadays, childhood leukaemia can be cured in the majority of cases. Among adult patients, the recovery rates for particular forms such as chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) are also excellent.