EDP column by Dr Ketan Dhatariya

“I am 82 and my doctor has told me that I have chronic leukaemia, they have told me that I should not worry about it. I thought leukaemia was dangerous."

Leukaemia (Greek for “white blood”) is a cancer of the white blood cells. In health, these are the cells that help to fight off infections. The white cells come from the bone marrow. Within the bone marrow, the newly created, or ‘immature’, white cells have to undergo a series of steps before they can be considered ‘mature’ enough to be released into the blood to fight infection. Leukaemia occurs when there are too many white cells in the blood. There are two main types of leukaemia, each of which can be further sub-divided. The two main types are knows as ‘acute’ – where there are lots of the immature white cells in the blood that cannot function properly, and there is ‘chronic’, where the mature cells work relatively well, but are present in excessive numbers. 

Over time, the normal bone marrow producing the red cells and the platelets – these help the blood to clot – may be overcome by the faulty bone marrow. But the time that it takes to do this can vary depending on the type of leukaemia that you have. Certain sorts of chronic leukaemia progress very slowly indeed. It may take years or sometimes even decades before the leukaemia causes problems that you may begin to notice. The problems can include becoming increasingly tired or short of breath on minimal exertion – if the excessive numbers of white cells start to affect the production of the red cells then that is known as an anaemia. The white cells themselves may not work properly, and so you may become more prone to infections, or get the shivers. If the platelets are affected, then you may bruise more easily.

The acute leukaemia’s tend to occur more frequently in children and young adults and need to be treated very aggressively – they are one of the most common forms of cancer in this age group. Chronic leukemia mostly occurs in older people. Unlike acute leukaemia, chronic forms are sometimes monitored for some time – often years – before treatment becomes necessary. 

No one knows what causes leukaemia, but certain things are known to predispose to developing it – these include having a genetic pre-disposition, exposure to radiation, certain chemicals and infection with certain viruses.

Your doctor will probably refer you to the hospital where the blood specialists – the haematologists – will explain your condition to you and also the possible treatments that may be necessary.

For more information about Leukaemia click these links: