Leukemia is widely thought to be a nearly-always-fatal disease. The truth, however, offers a ray of hope, according to the Mayo Clinic Health Letter: Leukemia can often be slowed or cured through a variety of new treatments. It's not a child's disease, either-10 times as many adults as children (25,000 vs. 2,500 yearly) contract leukemia.
Literally "white blood" in Greek, leukemia produces large numbers of abnormal white blood cells. Normally, white blood cells fight infection. White blood cells that are leukemic, though, simply block production of other useful blood products: oxygen carriers, clotters and normal white blood cells. Individuals with leukemia who don't receive treatment usually die from bleeding or infection.
Leukemias are classified two ways: by the kind of white cells they cause to multiply and the speed at which they progress. When leukemia strikes, it causes the following types of white blood cells to proliferate abnormally: lymphocytes, granulocytes, or monocytes. Acute leukemias, half of all cases, can overrun the body in weeks or months, while chronic forms take years to run their course. The four most common types are acute and chronic lymphocytic and acute and chronic granulocytic.
What are the symptoms of leukemia? At the onset, the sufferer may feel fatigue and malaise, experience enlargement of liver, spleen or lymph nodes or abnormal bleeding, and experience bruising or infection and fever.
Since the late '60s, treatment of leukemia has centered around chemotherapy, which is sometimes a cure, particularly with the fast-moving acute cases.
Other new treatments include bone marrow transplants, which seek to replace the bone marrow where the abnormal cells are manufactured with healthy marrow from a donor or from patients themselves. The cure rate for marrow transplants is about 45 percent.
A new drug, Cladribine, fights leukemia by destroying both dividing cells and those at rest. In trials, the drug brought about complete or partial remission for periods ranging from eight to 25 months.
One experimental treatment removes from the body "cell-specific antibodies," those which can destroy leukemic cells. They're then reproduced in large numbers and put back in the body to do their work.