Maybe it just started as feeling a little tired. Then you started bruising easily or getting night sweats. Getting diagnosed with leukemia is scary and can be confusing. Unlike some cancers, which occur in part of the body, leukemia is a cancer of the blood cells. This means the entire body is affected. Leukemia treatment options depend on what type you have and how it's affecting you.
You have 3 types of blood cells, each with a specific role.
White blood cells help your immune system respond to infections
Red blood cells carry oxygen through your body
Platelets help blood clot to prevent excessive bleeding
Most of the time, leukemia affects the white blood cells.
Diagnosis and Treatment at UVA Health
Your doctor will meet and talk to you about when your symptoms first presented and collect a medical history. They'll also do a physical exam, paying careful attention to the liver, spleen, and lymph nodes. Depending on what they find, they may run the following tests:
- Blood tests
- Bone marrow biopsy
- Chest X-ray
- CT Scan
- Lumbar puncture
- MRI scan
- Positron emission tomography (PET) scan
UVA Health has access to a wide range of imaging tools, and an experienced team of radiologists who understand the particular concerns of cancer patients. We can even combine imaging (like PET/CT scans) to help us get a better understanding of how cancer may be spreading.
Treatment for Leukemia at UVA Health
UVA Health has the first National Cancer Institute designated Comprehensive Cancer Center in Virginia. As part of the comprehensive care that we offer, you'll meet with a care team that includes nutritionists, social workers, rehabilitation specialists, and genetic counselors.
As a Comprehensive Cancer Center, UVA Health has access to clinical trials, the newest research, and leads the way in innovative care. We also have many centers that may be closer to you, so you don't have to travel as far for treatment.
What symptoms should you discuss with your doctor?
It can be tough to know when to call your doctor about symptoms. But these are the symptoms you should always mention.
- Sweating at night
- Flu-like symptoms
- Slow healing
- Intense insect bite reactions that are new
- Pale skin
- Easily bruising
- Gums bleeding or puffy
- Red spots (petechiae) under the skin
- Bone and joint pain
- Difficulty breathing
- Testicle swelling
- Abdominal pain and swelling
- Swollen lymph nodes (particularly in neck or armpit)
- Weight loss
- Meningitis with headache, nausea, loss of muscle control, seizures, symptoms of stroke
What causes leukemia?
Most of the time, there's no one, obvious cause for leukemia. There are risk factors that increase your chances of getting leukemia though, including:
- Age — leukemia is most common in people over 60
- Previous chemotherapy
- Some genetic conditions like Down's syndrome
- Benzene exposure above the federal safety limits
- Radiation therapy
- Myelodysplastic syndrome — a blood disease
- Tobacco smoke exposure
Types of Leukemia
The most common types of leukemia are:
- Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL)
- Acute myelogenous leukemia (AML)
- Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)
- Chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML)
Of these, ALL is most common in children, and AML and CLL are the most common in adults. Different types of leukemia require different treatment plans. Click on each to learn more.
Can you prevent leukemia?
Doing things like limiting exposure to benzene and tobacco smoke may help some, but most of the time leukemia can't be avoided.