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Clinical Specialties - Cancer

Leukemia & other blood cancers

Haematologic Malignancy MDTLeukaemia is cancer that originates in blood-forming tissue. The disease is characterised by the uncontrolled growth of blood cells, usually white blood cells (leukocytes), in the bone marrow and blood.

Other blood cancers that are caused by defects in the blood system include lymphomas and multiple myeloma.

The leukaemia experts at Sydney Adventist Hospital form part of our Haematologic Malignancy Multidisciplinary Team and use several methods to confirm your diagnosis and determine the stage of your disease. They have experience with early-stage as well as complex cancer; have access to advanced diagnostic tools and a wide range of treatments, including clinical trials. At the same time, our supportive clinicians help you manage side effects to support your quality of life. Explore this section to learn more about leukaemia and other blood cancers, its side effects and your treatment options.

About Leukaemia

Leukaemia is generally thought to occur when the DNA of some blood cells mutates. Other changes in the cell could contribute to leukaemia; however this is not yet fully understood.

Certain abnormalities fuel the growth and division of the cell and continue living when normal cells die. Over time, these abnormal cells can crowd out healthy blood cells in the bone marrow, leading to fewer healthy white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets, causing the signs and symptoms of leukaemia.

The major types of leukaemia are:

  • Acute lymphocytic leukaemia (ALL): This is the most common type of leukaemia in young children. ALL can also occur in adults.
  • Acute myelogenous leukaemia (AML): AML is a common type of leukaemia. It occurs in children and adults. AML is the most common type of acute leukaemia in adults.
  • Chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL): With CLL, the most common chronic adult leukaemia, you may feel well for years without needing treatment.
  • Chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML): This type of leukaemia mainly affects adults. A person with CML may have few or no symptoms for months or years before entering a phase in which the leukaemia cells grow more quickly.
  • Other types: Other, rarer types of leukaemia exist, including hairy cell leukaemia, myelodysplastic syndromes and myeloproliferative disorders.
What are the symptoms of leukaemia?

In acute leukaemia, symptoms generally appear suddenly and can mimic those of a virus or flu which can prompt a visit to the doctor.

When chronic leukaemia first develops, symptoms may not arise for several years. CLL and CML are often discovered as part of an elevated blood count during a regular blood test.

Some general symptoms of leukaemia include:

  • Fever, chills
  • Fatigue, weakness
  • Loss of appetite, weight loss
  • Night sweats
  • Bone/joint pain
  • Abdominal discomfort
  • Headaches
  • Shortness of breath
  • Frequent infections
  • Easy bruising or bleeding
  • Petechiae (small red spots under the skin)
How is leukaemia diagnosed?

If your doctor suspects your symptoms may be as a result of leukaemia, you may be requested to undergo the following tests and exams.

  • Physical exam: Your doctor will look for physical signs of leukaemia, such as pale skin from anaemia, swelling of your lymph nodes, and enlargement of your liver and spleen.
  • Blood tests: By looking at a sample of your blood, your doctor can determine if you have abnormal levels of red or white blood cells or platelets — which may suggest leukaemia.
  • Bone marrow test: Your doctor may recommend a procedure to remove a sample of bone marrow from your hipbone to be sent to a laboratory to look for leukaemia cells.

In addition to the above tests, doctors sometimes use imaging tests including chest x-rays, ultrasound, CT scans, MRI and PET scans to determine whether leukaemia cells have affected the bones or organs such as the kidneys, the brain or the lymph nodes.

Once a diagnosis has been made, your integrated team of leukaemia experts will use these test results to determine the stage or extent of the cancer which will largely influence the recommended treatment approach.

What are my treatment options for leukaemia?

Treatment for leukaemia depends on many factors. The Haematology MDT at Sydney Adventist Hospital would meet to tailor an appropriate treatment plan based on your diagnosis and age, overall health, the type of leukaemia you have, and whether it has spread to other parts of your body, including the central nervous system.

Common treatments used to treat leukaemia include:

  • Chemotherapy - the major form of treatment for leukaemia.
  • Biological therapy - works by using treatments that help your immune system recognise and attack leukaemia cells.
  • Targeted therapy - uses drugs that attack specific vulnerabilities within your cancer cells.
  • Radiation therapy - uses X-rays or other high-energy beams to damage leukaemia cells and stop their growth.
  • Stem cell transplant - a procedure to replace your diseased bone marrow with healthy bone marrow.
Resources and useful leukaemia cancer links
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