White blood cells (leukocytes) form part of the body’s immune system and help defend the body against infection. Cancer of these blood cells is known as leukaemia, commonly called ‘blood cancer’. Based on the type of white blood cells that are affected and the rate at which they develop leukaemia is classified as acute myeloid leukaemia (AML), acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL), chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) and chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL). CML is the commonest adult leukaemia in India.
Genes, diet, hormones, exposure to high levels of radiation or chemicals such as benzene, chemotherapy drugs (to treat another cancer), pre-existing blood disorders and smoking could act as risk factors. Children with chromosomal abnormalities (Down’s syndrome, Fanconi’s anaemia) have also been reported to be at a higher risk of developing leukaemia.
Leukaemia usually does not present with any symptoms at first and may be diagnosed by chance during a blood test. Lymph node biopsy in acute leukaemia establishes how far the leukaemia has spread. Acute leukaemia requires immediate treatment because it progresses rapidly and aggressively. Chronic leukaemia progresses slowly over the course of many years. The most effective method of treating leukaemia is chemotherapy. Radiotherapy is usually used in acute leukaemia to treat advanced cases of acute leukaemia that have spread to the nervous system and/or brain and to prepare the body for a bone marrow transplant. Bone marrow or stem cell transplant is an alternative treatment option for some patients.