Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia
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What is Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (ALL)?
Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (ALL) happens when the bone marrow overproduces white blood cells called lymphocytes. These abnormal cells overcrowd the bone marrow, and can also spill out to build up in parts of the lymphatic system (the spleen or lymph nodes) and in the liver.
While normal white blood cells are involved in fighting infection, these abnormal white blood cells are immature and aren’t able to function properly. People with ALL are therefore at high risk of infection.
Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia Symptoms
With the bone marrow making inadequate numbers of red blood cells and platelets, acute lymphoblastic leukaemia patients experience:
- frequent infections
- weight loss
- pain in the bones or joints
- swollen lymph glands
- a fine rash of dark red spots (called purpura)
- a feeling of discomfort in the abdomen (caused by a swollen liver or spleen).
Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia Treatment
Diagnosing Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia
Acute lymoblastic leukaemia is diagnosed through a full blood count (a common blood test that measures the number and status of different types of blood cells), and a bone marrow biopsy and examination.
Treating Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia
Depending on a number of factors, including the sub-type of ALL, the genetic fingerprint of the leukaemia cells, and the profile of the patient (age, other health factors), the type of treatment will vary, and be as personalised as possible.
The main form of treatment is chemotherapy, utilising a combination of drugs, given in scheduled cycles.
- Other treatments can include:
- blood transfusions
- platelet transfusions
All of these are designed to destroy the leukaemia cells and to restore normal blood counts. When no more leukaemia cells can be detected, the patient will enter remission, and receive further treatment to manage any residual disease. This is a very important process in preventing the patient from experiencing a relapse.
Treatment may continue for two to three years, or sometimes longer, depending on the patient’s response to treatment, and their potential risk of relapse.
Leukaemic cells can collect in the brain and spinal cord (central nervous system) and in these cases, chemotherapy is injected directly into the fluid that surrounds these structures. Occasionally, the area is also treated with radiotherapy.
What causes Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia?
As with many cancer types, the exact causes of ALL are largely unknown, however researchers are currently investigating genetic influences – such as damaged genes that control normal blood cell development. It is also thought that exposure to industrial chemicals like benzene or pesticides, or very high doses of radiation might contribute to the disease (survivors of the atomic bomb in Japan had significantly high rates of leukaemia).
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