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Women's Health

Mercy Women's Care at St. Anne
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Finding Out You have Leukemia

separator Leukemia is cancer of the blood-forming cells. It starts in the bone marrow. Leukemia can be fast-growing (acute) or slow-growing (chronic). When it’s chronic, you can have it for a long time before symptoms develop. When it’s acute, the blood cells are very abnormal and cannot function well. Additionally, leukemia can be either lymphocytic, which occurs in lymph cells, or myeloid, which occurs in myeloid cells.

There are actually four main categories of leukemia:

  • Acute lymphocytic: The most common type of leukemia in children. Also affects adults.
  • Acute myeloid: Occurs in children and adults.
  • Chronic lymphocytic: Affects mainly people older than 55, and almost never affects children.
  • Chronic myeloid: Affects mainly adults.

It’s common for the doctor who treats you to be a hematologist, medical oncologist or radiation oncologist. Typically, a pediatric oncologist treats children.

If you have acute leukemia, you’ll need treatment right away. The type of treatment you have depends on the kind of leukemia you have, your age, whether the leukemia cells are in your cerebrospinal fluid, your general health and other relevant factors.

Treatments include chemotherapy, biological therapy, radiation therapy or bone marrow (stem cell) transplants.
► Chemotherapy can be given by mouth, into a vein, into cerebrospinal fluid or into the lower spine. Its purpose is to kill leukemia cells.
► Biological therapy improves your body’s ability to fight the leukemia. It’s given by injection into a vein.
► Radiation therapy uses high energy rays to kill leukemia cells. Typically, a large machine beams the rays to the parts of the body where the leukemia cells have gathered.
► Stem cell transplants allow your healthcare team to give you strong treatments that destroy not only the leukemia cells but also the healthy blood cells in the bone marrow. After that, you receive stem cells through a flexible tube that’s placed in a large vein in the chest or neck area. The stem cells encourage the growth of healthy new blood cells. Patients generally stay in the hospital until enough healthy cells are produced.

Questions for your doctor
When you find out you have leukemia, you need answers to a lot of questions. Questions you should be sure to ask your doctor include:

  • What kind of leukemia do I have?
  • What are my treatment options, and which do you think is best for me and why?
  • What are the side effects of the treatment?
  • How will you help me if I have pain?
  • How will my treatment affect my daily activities?
  • How will I know if my treatment is working?
  • What are my chances of a full recovery?
  • How often will I need to have checkups?

You may need to have your doctor repeat the answers to these questions, but that’s okay. It’s normal. You have a lot to think about, and it takes a while for everything to sink in. Ask questions until you feel satisfied—every step of the way.

About your leukemia treatment…
Side effects of treatment for leukemia vary widely. Chemotherapy may cause you to feel weak and tired, to bruise easily, to lose your hair, and to have mouth and lip sores, nausea and diarrhea. It depends greatly on the type of chemo drugs you have, so be sure to ask your doctor how your treatment is likely to affect you.

Biological therapy can cause rashes or swelling at the site of the injection. Radiation therapy can cause fatigue, especially as the treatment continues. It can also cause your skin to become red, dry and tender. If you’re having chemotherapy at the same time, the side effects may be more severe.

Stem cell transplants can make you feel extremely ill, because the treatment kills healthy cells as well as diseased cells, and then provides you with new cells that can help you fight the disease. It’s a difficult process, and you’ll need a lot of support from your healthcare team to get through it.

Be sure to tell your doctor about any side effects your treatment causes. There are often ways to help control the nausea or extreme fatigue many cancer patients experience. And ask any questions that come to mind along the way. It’s a good idea to keep a notebook just for questions and thoughts about your cancer.

People with leukemia are prone to getting more infections than usual during treatment, so it may be necessary to take antibiotics and other medications to prevent this. It’s also important to get good dental care before and during your treatment. If possible, see your dentist before treatment so that you can have cavities filled and any other dental treatment before your leukemia therapy begins.

As your treatment for leukemia gets underway, don’t ignore the part of yourself that needs nurturing. Try to eat as well as you can. Try to fit exercise into your daily routine, even though you may feel tired, because exercise can be a tremendous help to you in your recovery. Join a leukemia support group if that interests you. And reach out to family and friends, because their help is crucial to you right now.

American Cancer Society; National Cancer Institute;
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