Although requiring a definite medical diagnosis, leukemia doesn’t show any symptoms in patients suffering from slow growing leukemias. Whereas, the rapidly growing types show general symptoms like frequent infections, vulnerability to easy bleeding & brushes, fatigue and weight loss. The signs and symptoms of the cancer depends on the type of leukemia the individual has. Leukemia is broadly classified into acute and chronic.
- Acute - This type causes signs and symptoms much similar to normal flu and appears suddenly within days or weeks. Acute leukemia is more fatal if left untreated.
- Chronic - This type of leukemia presents with very few symptoms or nothing. Signs and symptoms develop gradually in this case. It is diagnosed surprisingly during a normal routine blood test. Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia is the most common in adults over 55 years and it hardly affects the children. Most of the reported cases of CLL are men and more than 60% of them survive for more than five years, without relapse and remissions.
There are other conditions which have the same signs and symptoms as leukemia. The most common and definite symptoms to leukemia are :
- Fatigue and malaise
- Loss of appetite, resulting in unintentional weight loss
- Pain in the bones and joints
- Frequent infections in the urinary tract, lungs, around the anus or gums
- Unexplained fever
- Shortness of breath and palpitations
- Dizziness and weakness
- Easy bruising and bleeding, sometimes leading to petechiae
- Blood in stool, diarrhoea or nose
- Chills and night sweats
- Abnormally enlarged lymph nodes in the neck, underarm, groin or above the collarbone
- Abdominal discomfort
In addition to the above symptoms, the patient is also prone to a rare malignant and cancerous condition which shows build up of abnormal immature blast cells. These immature blood cells collect in the soft tissues outside the bone marrow and other parts of the body. Apart from this, many patients also complain of painful sores on the skin, especially hands and the feet.
There are many different kinds of leukemia. The signs and symptoms of this disease condition are somehow the same nonetheless as it shares the similar pathophysiologic mechanisms. Here are a number of universal manifestations of blood cancer.
The first thing that would come into our mind – even to those who are not inclined to the medical field – would be bruising. Thanks to the publicity it gained from movies and television shows, we can easily pinpoint blood cancer through the presence of bruises. More often than not, it starts with rashes (petechiae or small red dots in the skin) since blood vessels which are minute burst secondary to pooling of increased number of blood cells in the area.
The presence of platelet count that is below normal affects the clotting mechanism of the patient’s body. Compared to someone with normal lab counts, they bleed easily and longer than expected, their blood is also less viscous than the other; hence, bruising or contusions are somehow typical. It is also customary to see bleeding gums that is why soft bristled brushes are recommended for oral hygiene. They are also not encouraged to take aspirin whenever they would complain of pain. Nose bleeding is another regular sign. For women who are already menstruating, longer menstrual days can be noted. This should then be monitored (by counting soaked pads) closely so as to determine regular flow from bleeding. For this reason, we also have to observe if there are bleeding in between menses as this is not normal.
Recurrent Reports of Infectious Diseases
Adults and young people with leukemia have altered immune defenses as the maturity and multiplication of their white blood cells are affected. White blood cells or leukocytes are important as they help protect our body from infection, viruses and bacteria. Unlike those with healthy and regular white blood cell counts, a leukemic person cannot defend himself too much from the inside. Although antiviral and antibacterial medications can be prescribed there would be cases wherein the drugs cannot help cure the ailment.
Palpable Lymph Nodes
Can you remember the function of our lymphatic system? It filters our blood and moves excess fluid away and back to their original places. Leukemia makes the process anomalous as the surge of blood cell count definitely affects how our lymph nodes work. Expect that assorted type of blood cells would be trapped in each stations hence you will feel enlarged or swollen nodes in the neck, armpits, and groins. Swelling can also be evident in other non-prominent areas of lymph nodes.
Abnormal Lab Results
Once the blood is extracted and examined, we can determine lots of idiosyncrasies in the counts of erythrocytes (also known as RBC or Red Blood cells), thrombocytes (called platelets) and leukocytes (WBC or White Blood Cells). Hence, conditions such as anemia are common.
Even though the number of red blood cells can proliferate in an enormous amount, the characteristics of these cancerous cells cannot help carry their respective function which is to carry and deliver oxygen to tissues and organs. With this in mind, expect the patient to report complaints of fatigue. This is the medical term we use to describe extreme tiredness or exhaustion. We can also observe increased number of heartbeat and respiratory rate from the patient. This is a coping mechanism since the tissues and organs are demanding their usual oxygen supply. Although the problem arises with the transportation system, the brain interprets it as a need for us to “inhale more” and the heart to “pump even faster”. Dizziness is also not uncommon. Going back to the main concern, since the brain does not receive adequate amounts of oxygen, the person would then feel lightheaded.
Long term Leukemia
For patients who have chronic malignancy in the blood, a number of other signs and symptoms with varying levels of severity can manifest. Joint and bone pain is recognizable. Inflammation in eyes and skin can also be observed. Fever that rises and falls and febrile episodes which sometimes stays constant for a certain period of time is also an anticipated report.
The appearance of the above mentioned signs and symptoms however does not automatically mean you have leukemia, it is always best to consult physician for proper diagnosis.