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Leukemia refers to a variety of cancers of the blood and bone marrow. There are many kinds of leukemia, and they are differentiated by what type of cells the cancer affects, the age of onset, and the speed at which the body is affected.
There are a number of different kinds of white blood cells, each with its own purpose. There are multiple kinds of lymphocytes, macrophages, and a number of other white blood cells, and there are a number of different kinds of cancers that may affect all of these different kinds of blood cells.
Common symptoms of leukemia include systemic pain and lethargy. Leukemia, because it is an illness that affects a person's immune response, can make a person feel tired all the time. Once a person has leukemia, it is a difficult illness to treat but with some of the more common variants of leukemia, conventional cancer treatments have had some effect.
There are a number of different treatments available for leukemia; the three most common ones are discussed in more detail below.
Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy is a broad term that refers to a large range of drugs that are used in the treatment of cancer. Chemotherapy agents work to either inhibit the reproduction of cells or simply destroy them. They accomplish both of these through aggressive manipulation of the body's physiology.
The biggest drawback to chemotherapy, and also the reason why it is not a cure, is that it can not distinguish between normal cells and cancerous cells. The drugs used for this type of therapy tend to be quite toxic – the chemicals have a very unhealthy effect on cells and act indiscriminately on cancer cells and healthy cells. The hope is that the chemotherapy agents will be able to kill off all the cancer cells before the normal ones, or that it will destroy and/or inhibit them at similar rates so that other methods such as blood transfusions can be used in order to replenish the normal cells faster than the cancerous ones. Chemotherapy tends to be a blunt-force method of treating cancer – it attempts to make the conditions in the body unfit for growth, at the limits of the patient\'s tolerance.
Surgery: Leukemia is different from other cancers in many ways. Namely, since leukemia is a cancer of the blood, solid tumors don\'t form. The "tumor," in this case, is in the form of blood cells that divide uncontrollably, and since blood cells don\'t normally aggregate, a solid mass of cells is never seen. Since most cancer treatments involving surgery are meant to remove solid masses, there isn\'t much that surgery has to offer for the direct treatment of the disease. However, there are some health effects of leukemia that can be treated with surgery. The cancer tends to inflame the spleen and lymph nodes, which can cause pain and discomfort. If the spleen gets too large, it has the potential to cause other problems, including anemia, increased susceptibility to infection, and internal bleeding. Surgery to remove the spleen can help with these side effects.
Radiation Therapy: High doses of radiation are commonly used to kill cancer cells. Much like chemotherapy, however, this is a blunt-force tactic; radiation kills normal cells along with cancerous ones. Again, the hope is that cancer cells will be killed disproportionately to normal ones, giving the normal cells a chance to get ahead. With most cancers, radiation doses only need to be given to the area of the tumor, but since leukemia effects the entire circulatory system, full-body radiation therapy is usually required.
Stem Cell Transplantation: New blood cells are formed from so-called "adult stem cells" that can be found in bone marrow and, much less frequently, in the blood stream. Giving patients undergoing chemotherapy or radiation therapy these adult stem cells can help them form new, healthy blood cells to replace the ones that were killed by the treatments. Stem cells can be retrieved from the patient himself, although it\'s difficult to differentiate between healthy and cancerous cells. An alternative would be to retrieve stem cells from a matching donor\'s bone marrow, although this comes with its own risks, including graft-versus-host disease.