Leukemia is a type of cancer that affects the blood-forming tissues that compose the body’s lymphatic system and bone marrow. Although childhood leukemia is rare, is it the most common type of cancer in adolescents and children.
About one-third of childhood cancer patients suffer from leukemia. Of these, about 75 percent have acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), a type of the disease that primarily affects the blood and bone marrow. Acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) accounts for most of the remaining 25 percent of childhood cancer cases.
Both types of leukemia affect the blood and first develop in the bone marrow, the part of the body that produces white and red blood cells and platelets. Leukemia causes the the body to make white blood cells that do not mature normally. These abnormal cells continue to reproduce and make it difficult for the body to produce healthy cells.
ALL causes the body to produce too many lymphocytes, cells that help fight off infections. The cells produced by bone marrow are abnormal and rapidly reproduce. The influx of abnormal cells prohibits the body from creating healthy blood cells and reduces the body’s ability to fight infections.
AML causes the body to produce an abundance of granulocytes, another type of white blood cell that helps the immune system function. The abnormal cells reproduce quickly and make it difficult for the body to produce healthy cells. Like ALL, this type of leukemia significantly affects the immune system.
The first signs of leukemia in children are often related to abnormal blood marrow functioning. While each patient may experience the symptoms of this cancer differently, the following signs are most common and may occur over a period of days or weeks.
Anemia is present when the body is unable to produce red blood cells due to the presence of abnormal white blood cells in bone marrow. Children with anemia may appear pale and tired. They may also breathe more rapidly to compensate for the reduction in the blood\’s oxygen-carrying capacity. A simple test that counts red blood cells can determine if the child is anemic.
Children that have leukemia often have compromised immune systems. Although the child may have a high level of white blood cells, these cells are unable to fight off infections because they are immature and abnormal.
The weakened immune system may be defenseless against bacterial infections or viruses. The child may have frequent infections that cause a runny nose, fever or cough as a result.
Increased Bleeding or Bruising
Leukemia affects the body\’s production of platelets, cells that encourage blood clotting and stop bleeding. As abnormal white blood cells crowd bone marrow, the body is less able to produce these cells. The result of a lower platelet count is often an increase in bruising. Children that have leukemia may also exhibit petechia, small red dots that are caused by bleeding blood vessels.
Joint and Bone Pain
Children with leukemia often experience pain in the joints and bones. This discomfort is caused by the bone marrow being overcrowded with rapidly-reproducing white blood cells.
Swollen Lymph Nodes
One of the most common signs of leukemia in children is swelling in the lymph nodes. This symptom may be seen in the lymph nodes located in the chest, neck, underarms or groin. Lymph nodes filter the blood but the presence of leukemia cells can overwhelm them and cause swelling.
Many children with leukemia experience abdominal pain that leads to weight loss or a reduction in appetite. This symptom occurs when leukemia cells collect in the spleen, liver and kidney. Appetite loss may result when the spleen or liver become so swollen with leukemia cells that they press on the stomach.
Leukemia can make breathing difficult because cancer cells often cluster around the thymus, a small organ located in the upper chest. As a result, children that have leukemia may experience coughing, painful breathing or wheezing.
Children that have leukemia may experience swelling of the face and arms because cancer cells may put pressure on the large vein that carries blood from the arms and head back to the heart. This vein is located near the thymus. When the vein becomes crowded with leukemia cells, healthy blood may be blocked from reaching the heart. This affect of leukemia is a serious medical emergency and may cause dizziness, headaches and changes in consciousness.
Leukemia can also spread to the brain. Approximately 6 percent of children with ALL and 12 percent of children with AML experience balance issues, abnormal vision, seizures or headaches caused by the spread of leukemia to the brain.
The common signs of leukemia in children can be caused by a host of other problems. Doctors can confirm the presence of leukemia or other conditions by performing a physical exam, taking a complete medical history and examining samples taken from the blood and bone marrow. A lumbar puncture and lymph node biopsy can also confirm leukemia.
About the author: Kristina is a passionate and knowledgeable health and beauty blogger. She writes for her own blog covering various lifestyles, health, beauty topics and everything that can make you prettier and healthier like donating bone marrow.