What exactly is the disease?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 December, 2007, 12:00am

What is leukaemia? Leukaemia is a cancer of the bone marrow. It affects the cells in the bone marrow that produce white blood cells. The four main types of leukaemia are: chronic myeloid, acute myeloid, chronic lymphocytic and acute lymphoblastic. Each type has its own characteristics and treatment.

What is bone marrow? Bone marrow is a spongy material that fills some bones and produces stem cells, which develop into the three different types of blood cells: red blood cells, which carry oxygen to all cells in the body; white blood cells, which are essential for fighting infection; platelets, which help the blood to clot and control bleeding. All these cells normally stay inside the bone marrow until they are mature enough to perform their functions properly. They are then released into the bloodstream to circulate around the body.

What are the risk factors and causes of chronic myeloid leukaemia? The cause remains unknown, but research is on-going. It is not caused by an inherited faulty gene. Research has shown that exposure to electromagnetic fields, living near high-voltage electricity cables, and household radon do not increase the risk of developing the disease.

Are there any factors that might increase a person's risk of developing the cancer? Exposure to very high radiation levels (such as following a nuclear accident or an atom bomb) is known to increase risk. In recent years there has been publicity about the increase in leukaemia in people living close to nuclear power plants. Research is still under way to see if there is any definite link between these factors.

Will exposure to certain chemicals cause the disease? People who have been exposed to a chemical called benzene for a long time - for example, in their work - have a higher risk of developing the disease. Benzene is one of the chemicals in petrol and is also used in the rubber industry.

How might treatment affect your fertility? Some of the chemotherapy drugs used to treat chronic myeloid leukaemia can cause temporary or permanent infertility. Your doctor will talk to you about this in more detail before you start your treatment. Some drugs have less effect on fertility than others. There are many couples who have had normal, healthy babies after one of them has been treated for leukaemia and there is no greater risk of the baby having a mental or physical abnormality.

What are the treatments for the disease? This depends on the phase of the illness. Your doctor will discuss the possible treatment options with you and the benefits and disadvantages of each. Some of the common treatments include biological therapies, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, complementary therapies, stem cell and bone marrow transplants, surgery and other supportive therapies.

Source: www.cancerbackup.org.uk