Leukaemia

There are different types of leukaemia (blood cancer). One the one hand, a distinction is made between acute and chronic leukaemia. On the other hand, the type of cancer is named after the blood cells which it affects. If lymphocytes (which belong to the white blood cells) are affected, this is known as lymphatic leukaemia; if other blood cells are affected, this is known as myeloid leukaemia.

All forms of leukaemia occur from precursor cells of the blood, which are known as stem cells. The precursor cells affected by leukaemia multiply unchecked and impair the formation of healthy blood cells. The most common types of leukaemia are acute lymphatic leukaemia (ALL), acute myeloid leukaemia (AML), chronic lymphatic leukaemia (CLL) and chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML).

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

Acute forms of leukaemia develop rapidly and cause life-threatening conditions in a short time if they are not treated quickly. Chronic types of leukaemia develop more slowly and often have a longer course before they are even discovered.

For the most part, the causes of the majority of leukaemias are unclear. However, a genetic defect in chromosome 22 is the reason for chronic myeloid leukaemia. The defective chromosome is known as the Philadelphia chromosome, after the place where this gene defect was discovered. On the other hand, no one knows why this gene defect occurs. Risk factors such as radioactive rays, particular chemicals (benzene, formaldehyde) or certain medications (cytostatics) can contribute to the occurrence of leukaemia.

The symptoms of leukaemia are diverse and can all be traced back to impaired blood formation. Anaemia, fatigue and breathing difficulties are signs of decreased formation of red blood cells (erythrocytes). If the formation of platelets (thrombocytes) has been impaired, this leads to an increased tendency to bleed, which can manifest in nose bleeds or gum bleeds. Infectious diseases, fever and inflammation occur more frequently as leukaemia also affects the immunity cells of the blood. This often causes painful enlargement of the spleen or the liver. Patients with leukaemia can also have bone pain as haematopoiesis occurs in the bone marrow.

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

The treatment of leukaemia depends on the type of leukaemia and the course (acute or chronic). Treatment forms such as chemotherapy, antibody treatment, radiation therapy or bone marrow transplantation are used, depending on the type of leukaemia and the stage of the disease. Childhood leukaemia can usually be cured nowadays. The recovery rates for particular forms, such as chronic myeloid leukaemia in adulthood, are also excellent.