Leukemia: Signs and Potential Treatments

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  • 0:01 Leukemia
  • 1:31 Signs and Symptoms of Leukemia
  • 3:25 Treatment of Leukemia
  • 4:28 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Rebecca Gillaspy

Dr. Gillaspy has taught health science at University of Phoenix and Ashford University and has a degree from Palmer College of Chiropractic.

Leukemia is a cancer involving the bone marrow and blood cells. Learn about the signs and symptoms of leukemia, as well as treatment options, such as chemotherapy, radiation, biological therapy, and bone marrow transplantation, in this lesson.


Inside your bones there is a soft, spongy tissue called your bone marrow. Your bone marrow acts as a nursery where baby blood cells are born and begin to develop. Inside this bone marrow we see different types of blood cells getting their start.

Some of these young cells will grow up to be red blood cells and develop the ability to carry oxygen around your body. Others will become white blood cells that will protect the body from infection and disease, while others will become platelets, which are actually fragments of cells that are important for blood clotting and controlling bleeding. In a healthy individual, the bone marrow knows just the right amount of each type of blood cell to produce to meet the body's needs.

But this is not the case in a person with leukemia. Leukemia is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow in which the bone marrow produces many abnormal white blood cells. You can recall this term by remembering that 'leuk' refers to 'white cells' and that when 'emia' is tacked on to the end of a word it often signifies that there is an 'excess' of a substance present in the bloodstream. So with leukemia, we have an 'excess of white cells.'

This overproduction of white cells 'crowds out' the normal production of red blood cells and platelets leading to symptoms that are commonly seen in a leukemia patient. The symptoms of leukemia, as well as potential treatments of this disease, are the subjects of this lesson.

Signs and Symptoms of Leukemia

Because leukemia cells are abnormal and often immature, they have a difficult time carrying out the normal functions of white blood cells. This makes it hard for a person with leukemia to fight off infection, leading to two of the common signs and symptoms of leukemia, which are more frequent infections and persistent fevers.

As we mentioned, because white blood cells are being produced in such abundance, the red blood cells and platelets get crowded out and are therefore under-produced. Fewer red blood cells means the body does not receive enough oxygen. This leads to additional symptoms, including anemia, pale skin, weakness, and fatigue. Fewer platelets means blood clotting is compromised, so a person with leukemia will experience easy bruising and bleeding.

Patients with leukemia may also complain of bone pain. Bone pain is the result of pressure that builds up due to the rapid production of leukemia cells within the bone marrow. Swollen lymph nodes can also be a sign of leukemia, which makes sense because white blood cells and lymph nodes are all associated with the lymphatic system.

Leukemia can spread to the lymph nodes that are near the skin's surface, so swollen lymph nodes might be felt on the sides of the neck, under the arms, and above the collarbones. Other symptoms may include night sweats, which are excessive or unexplained sweating that seems to happen mostly at night.

A patient may also experience a loss of appetite and weight loss. These symptoms may occur for unknown reasons, but in some cases the spleen or liver can become enlarged in a leukemia patient. This puts pressure on the stomach, which limits the amount of food it takes to fill the stomach. Additional symptoms can occur throughout the body as leukemia cells travel and gather in different organs or tissues. These symptoms will vary depending on the area where the cells accumulate.

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