Healthy Living

Is Leukemia Hereditary?

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Key Takeaways

  • Patients suspected to have leukemia will have to undergo several diagnostic tests to confirm the diagnosis.  
  • Leukemia is a type of cancer that affects blood cells, bone marrow and the lymphatic system. 
  • Leukemia is believed to have a genetic predisposition and is also caused by contributing environmental factors. 

Leukemia is a type of cancer that affects a person's blood cells, bone marrow, and lymphatic system.  The symptoms associated with leukemia arise because of an increased level of immature or undeveloped white blood cells, also called leukocytes. This abnormality is caused by a mutation in the leukocytes' DNA, which dictates their functions, and causes rapid growth and division of the cells, increasing their numbers and causing overcrowding of abnormal cells if left untreated. Most types of leukemia are considered genetic disorders but are not hereditary in nature, which means that a parent with leukemia passing on the disease directly to his or her offspring is quite uncommon. There are many studies that suggest leukemia’s hereditary feature specifically occurs in a type called acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ACL).

Leukemia is believed to have a genetic predisposition, combined with contributing environmental factors.  Common risk factors for developing leukemia include genetic disorders such as Down syndrome, Li-Fraumeni syndrome, neurofibromatosis and Fanconi anemia. Children with Down syndrome have about a two to three percent increase in their chance of developing acute lymphocytic leukemia or acute myeloid leukemia.  There are several inherited conditions that put children at risk of developing leukemia because they cause immune system problems and increased susceptibility to infections, such as Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome, Ataxia-telangiectasia, Schwachman-Diamond syndrome, and Bloom syndrome.  Lifestyle-related risk factors that put adults at a greater risk for leukemia include being overweight or having a sedentary lifestyle, cigarette smoking (especially acute myeloid leukemia), excessive alcohol intake, and extended sun exposure. Environmental risk factors include frequent exposure to high levels of radiation.  Although fetal exposure to radiation (via x-rays and CT scans) while in utero is still widely studied, some researchers have seen a slight link between exposure and childhood leukemia. Therefore, doctors are now taking precautions to avoid subjecting pregnant women to these tests and helping their babies to avoid radiation exposure.   

Common signs and symptoms of leukemia include:

  • weakness and fatigue that is not relieved with rest
  • unexpected weight loss or loss of appetite
  • night sweats
  • the presence of fever or chills  
  • enlargement of the liver or spleen
  • swelling of the lymph nodes (presents as pain around the neck and armpits)
  • the presence of petechiae, or tiny red spots on the skin
  • bone and joint pain
  • recurring nosebleeds
  • bruising and bleeding easily
  • frequent infections
  • nausea
  • headaches
  • vomiting
  • loss of muscle control
  • seizures and/or confusion

There are several diagnostic tests that a patient suspected to have leukemia must undergo to confirm the diagnosis.  The first is a complete blood cell count to determine the person’s red blood cell, white blood cell, and platelet levels.  The second is a bone marrow test, in which a sample of the person's bone marrow is aspirated and sent to a laboratory to detect the presence of cancer cells and determine the type of leukemia.  If the cancer cells have spread to other organs such as the liver and spleen, then a tissue biopsy would be required, and a sample of the affected tissue would be collected and sent to the laboratory to check for the presence of cancer. A doctor may also order imaging studies such as ultrasounds, CT scans, and X-rays to help them determine possible effects of the leukemia cells in other organs, indicating the stage and progression of the condition. 

Treatment of leukemia is possible through a combination of drug therapies dependent on the type of leukemia, the progression of the disease, and the patient's age and overall health. After a diagnosis of leukemia is made, the patient's doctor carefully explains the disease to the patient, making sure to include possible symptoms, prognosis, the anticipated outcome or progression of the disease, and different options as far as treatment plans and regimens. Though treatment for leukemia does not happen overnight, this cooperation between the doctor and patient helps ensure that the patient receives the best possible outcome. 

What are the causes of leukemia?

The exact cause of leukemia is still unknown, but a number of tests and study have shown that the cause of leukemia involves the combination of genetic and environmental factors. Leukemia cells have acquired mutations because of which they tend to grow abnormally hampering the functions of white blood cells. The reason behind the mutation is still not clear and still unknown. But one change that is common in the DNA of leukemias is the chromosome translocation. In this process, a part or portion of the chromosome breaks off and gets attached to some other chromosome. This one trail is found in almost all types of leukemia. Most cases of leukemia are not believed to be hereditary, but certain genetic characters and mutations can be passed on to the child or the offspring which may increase the chance of them having leukemia in the future. One such condition that can be characterized by inherited mutation is LI-Fraumeni syndrome and the individuals having this syndrome are at a greater risk of having leukemia or other cancers. Some other hereditary conditions that can increase the risk of having cancer in the future of the child are down syndrome, neurofibromatosis type 1, ataxia telangiectasia, Bloom syndrome, Ataxia-telangiectasia, Klinefelter syndrome and Noonan syndrome.

Some other causes that can result in leukemia are

  1. Radiation Exposure: - being exposed to high level of radiation and result in both kinds of Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia and as well as Acute Myeloid leukemia (AML). The possible risks of getting or having leukemia are from the constant exposure to low levels of radiations such as x-rays, but the extent of the risk is still unknown.
  2. Certain Chemical Exposure: - the risks of having ALL can be increased to certain drugs in chemotherapy and exposure to certain chemical like benzene.
  3. Certain Viral Infections

Race and gender- race and gender also plays an important role for you having the risk of suffering from leukemia such as ALL is more common in whites than in African Americans but the reason for this is still not known. Similarly, ALL is more common in males as compared to females and still the reason for this is also not known till now.