Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) is a type of cancer of the blood and bone marrow — the spongy tissue inside bones where blood cells are made.The word “acute” in acute lymphocytic leukemia comes from the fact that the disease progresses rapidly and creates immature blood cells, rather than mature ones. The word “lymphocytic” in acute lymphocytic leukemia refers to the white blood cells called lymphocytes, which ALL affects. Acute lymphocytic leukemia is also known as acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
Acute lymphocytic leukemia is the most common type of cancer in children, and treatments result in a good chance for a cure. Acute lymphocytic leukemia can also occur in adults, though the chance of a cure is greatly reduced.
Causes of acute lymphocytic leukemia
Acute lymphocytic leukaemia is caused by a DNA mutation in the stem cells causing too many white blood cells to be produced.The white blood cells are also released from the bone marrow before they are mature and able to fight infection like fully developed white blood cells. As the number of immature cells increases, the number of healthy red blood cells and platelets fall, and it’s this fall which causes many of the symptoms of leukemia. It is not known exactly what causes this DNA mutation to occur, but there are a few factors which may increase the risk of developing acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
Risk factors of acute lymphocytic leukemia
Genetic disorders: A small number of childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia cases are thought to be caused by related genetic disorders. For example, rates of leukemia tend to be higher in children with Down’s syndrome.
Radiation exposure: Exposure to very high levels of radiation, either before birth or afterwards, is a known risk factor. However, it would require a significant level of radiation, such as the amount released during the nuclear reactor accident at Chernobyl. Due to the potential risk of radiation to unborn babies, medical techniques and equipment that use radiation, such as X-rays, are rarely used on pregnant women. Most cases of childhood leukemia occur in children with no history of genetic disorders or exposure to radiation.
Possible environmental factors: Experts have also carried out extensive research to determine whether the following environmental factors could be a trigger for leukemia
Living near a nuclear power station: Living near a power lineLiving near a building or facility that releases electromagnetic radiation, such as a mobile phone mast. At the moment there is no evidence to confirm that any of these environmental factors increase the risk of developing leukemia.
Benzene: Exposure to the chemical benzene is a known risk factor for adult acute leukemia. Benzene is found in petrol and is also used in the rubber industry. However, there are strict controls to protect people from prolonged exposure.Benzene is also found in cigarettes, which could explain why smokers are three times more likely to develop acute leukemia than non-smokers. People who have had chemotherapy and radiotherapy to treat earlier, unrelated cancers also have an increased risk of developing acute leukemia.
There are some evidence to show an increased risk of acute lymphoblastic leukemia in people who: Are obese
Have a weakened immune system – due to HIV or AIDS or taking immunosuppressants after an organ transplant
Symptoms of acute lymphocytic leukemia
Acute lymphocytic leukemia usually starts slowly before rapidly becoming severe as the number of immature white blood cells (blast cells) in your blood increases. Most of the symptoms are caused by a lack of healthy blood cells.
Feeling tired and breathless
Repeated infections over a short time
Unusual and frequent bleeding, such as bleeding gums or nosebleeds
Bone and joint pain
Easily bruised skin
Swollen lymph nodes (glands)
Tummy (abdominal pain) – caused by a swollen liver or spleen
Unintentional weight loss
A purple skin rash (purpura)In some cases, the affected cells can spread from your bloodstream into your central nervous system. This can cause neurological symptoms (related to the brain and nervous system), including:
Seizures or fits
Complications of acute lymphocytic leukemia
Weakened immune system: Having a weakened immune system (being immunocompromised) is a possible complication for some people with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. A weakened immune system may be caused by a lack of healthy white blood cells, which means your immune system is less able to fight infection.
Bleeding: If you have acute leukaemia, you’ll bleed and bruise more easily because of the low levels of platelets (clot-forming cells) in your blood.
Infertility: Many of the medicines used to treat acute lymphoblastic leukaemia can cause infertility.People who are particularly at risk of becoming permanently infertile are those who’ve received high doses of chemotherapy and radiotherapy in preparation for a stem cell and bone marrow transplant.
Psychological effects of leukaemia
Being diagnosed with leukaemia can be very distressing, particularly if a cure is unlikely. At first, the news may be difficult to take in.It can be particularly difficult if you do not currently have any leukaemia symptoms, but you know that it could cause a serious problem later on. Having to wait many years to see how the leukaemia develops can be very stressful and can trigger feelings of anxiety and depression.