When it comes to words that no one wants to hear while having medical tests performed, leukaemia is high on the list. Unlike more common ailments, such as diabetes, heart disease, and some forms of cancer which can have a definitive cause – leukaemia, even though over 350,000 cases were diagnosed in 2012 alone, seems to cause anxiety simply because many people do not know much about it. With today’s word of the day, it is time to become a little more familiar with the 11th most common cancer in the UK.
Leukaemia is a bone cancer that results in the production of too many white blood cells. In fact, many of the symptoms of leukaemia – such as increased risk of infections, tiredness, and bruising/bleeding problems – occur from the blood’s overpopulation of undeveloped white blood cells, effectively pushing out red blood cells and causing a blood imbalance. Unlike many other types of cancer, there is currently no known cause for leukaemia, though higher risk is often attributed to family history, smoking, previous chemical or radiation exposure, or Down syndrome. As for treatment, it is usually a multi-faceted approach involving chemotherapy, targeted therapy, supportive/palliative care, and bone marrow transplants.
Leukaemia – Leukämie
Understandably, it is extremely difficult to know how long a certain disease has existed, but, in the case of leukaemia, the symptoms were first described by Alfred-Armand-Louis-Marie Velpeau in 1827. Building on this initial description, German pathologist Rudolf Virchow, who, in 1845, noted an abnormally high concentration of white blood cells in a patient’s blood sample, began calling the disease Leukämie (deriving from the Greek for white – leukos, and blood – haima). First thought as being simply a blood disease, it was another decade until another German pathologist, Franz Ernst Christian Neumann, discovered that, upon examining a deceased leukaemia patient, the central location of the disease was in the bone marrow.
Though not being among the more widely familiar cancers, leukaemia can be just as devastating. Leukaemia is currently the most diagnosed cancer in children, even while 90% of cases are diagnosed for adults. Though there are still substantial mortality rates for those fighting leukaemia, there is definitely reason for hope: rates for those surviving the disease for 10 or more years is nearly 50%, which is quite an improvement from 5% just 4 decades ago.