Cancer isn’t one-size-fits-all. No matter where you are on your cancer journey, our experienced team will create a customized treatment plan designed just for you.
What is leukemia?
Leukemia is a type of blood cancer that affects white blood cells. White blood cells have an important job to do — they help your body fight off infections.
Leukemia develops when bone marrow begins to produce too many irregular white blood cells. These damaged cells build up in your body and begin to crowd out healthy the healthy ones, making it difficult to fight infections.
Because it is a cancer in the blood, leukemia does not exist as a tumor inside the body.
Types of leukemia
There are several types of leukemia, including:
- Acute lymphocytic leukemia – Most commonly seen in children, this type of leukemia affects both the blood and bone marrow.
- Acute myeloid leukemia – Most commonly seen in adults, this type can form in different types of abnormal cells: white or red blood cells, or platelets.
- Chronic lymphocytic leukemia – Can be either slow- or fast-growing and makes up around 30% of all leukemia diagnoses.
- Chronic myeloid leukemia – The rarest form of leukemia, this type tends to grow slowly.
- Hairy cell leukemia – A rare and slow-growing form of leukemia, this type is named for how cells appear under a microscope.
Symptoms of leukemia
Leukemia often does not produce any symptoms in its early stages. Additionally, different stages of leukemia produce different symptoms.
Symptoms of leukemia commonly include:
- Bone pain
- Sudden, unintentional weight loss
- Persistent fever or chills
- Excessive sweating, especially at night
- Red spots or a rash on your skin
- Frequent nosebleeds
Having one or more of these symptoms does not mean you have leukemia. However, it’s still important to talk to your doctor, as these can be signs of an underlying health issue.
Leukemia risk factors
Certain behaviors, risk factors and genetics can increase your chances of developing leukemia. These include
- Smoking: Tobacco use, including smokeless tobacco, cigarettes and pipes, increases your risk of developing leukemia.
- Family history: If you have a family member who has been diagnosed with leukemia, your risk of developing leukemia is higher.
- Other risk factors: Other factors that can raise the risk of developing leukemia include:
- Environmental exposure to certain industrial chemicals such as benzene
- Previous exposure to radiation (usually due to chemotherapy or radiation treatment)
- Rare bone marrow conditions
Because leukemia symptoms may not appear until the disease is in its later stages, this type of blood cancer can be difficult to diagnose.
We offer screening tests that use the most advanced technology to better detect leukemia in its earliest stages, when it’s most treatable. Some of the diagnostic tests your doctor may perform to test for blood cancer include:
- Physical examination – Your doctor will first review your medical history, asking you questions about the symptoms you’ve experienced and how long you’ve had them.
They may order more testing if they notice any signs or symptoms of leukemia, such as enlarged lymph nodes, persistent bruising or swelling in your abdomen.
- Blood tests – Your doctor may order a complete blood count test, which will look for abnormalities in the amount of white blood cells you have.
- Bone marrow biopsy – During a biopsy, your doctor removes a small piece of bone, as well a small amount of bone marrow, using a thin needle or a surgical procedure. Then they examine the samples under a microscope to find out if they contain cancerous cells (also called malignant cells).
- Bone marrow aspiration – During this test, your doctor will insert a thin, hollow needle into your bone in order to remove a small amount of bone marrow liquid.
- Imaging tests – Imaging tests, such as MRIs, CT scans and PET scans, are used to look for enlarged organs or lymph nodes, or to see if cancerous cells have spread to other areas of the body.
- Spinal tap – During this procedure, your doctor uses a needle to take a small amount of spinal fluid. Then they can identify whether cancerous cells have spread to your central nervous system.
At Geisinger, our team of highly trained leukemia specialists includes surgeons, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, pathologists, radiologists, nurse navigators and support staff who come together to develop a personalized plan around you.
Depending on the type, location and stage of your cancer, one or more of the following treatments may be recommended.
Chemotherapy – Chemotherapy is a drug-based treatment designed to slow the growth of or shrink tumors. Chemotherapy drugs can be given through an IV or taken in a pill form.
Your chemotherapy may be given:
- Before your surgery, to attempt to reduce the size of the tumor
- After your surgery, to destroy any cancer that still remains and reduce the chances of the cancer coming back
- Along with radiation therapy, which is known as chemoradiation or chemoradiotherapy
Our team includes doctors called medical oncologists who specialize in chemotherapy. Our patients have access to clinical trials that include testing new chemotherapy drugs and combinations of medications that aren’t widely available.
Keeping you comfortable while you undergo treatment is important to us. Our state-of-the-art clinics, many which have been recently renovated, offer heated seats and individual TVs to help you relax during treatment.
Radiation therapy – Radiation oncology uses radiation to control or destroy harmful cancer cells, with tools to treat each unique cancer.
Our board-certified cancer doctors and highly skilled clinical team deliver conventional radiotherapy treatments that include:
- External beam radiation, which uses special technology to send X-ray radiation (photons) to the cancer cells from outside the body
- Internal radiation (brachytherapy), which targets the tumor using safe levels of radiation inside the body through radioactive tubes or radioactive seeds
- Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT), which uses a 3D image of the damaged cells to deliver high-precision radiotherapy that fits its exact outline
- Image-guided radiation therapy (IGRT), which is used to localize the radiation beam daily and treat cancers in areas of the body that move during and between treatments. This includes cone beam CT scans to accurately view the cancer cells or affected lymph nodes and target them during treatment.
- Stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT), which uses precise beams of radiation to focus high doses of radiation shaped just around the cancerous cells, with very little damage to surrounding healthy tissues
Leukemia care at Geisinger
Your cancer journey is just that — yours. We understand how personal it is, which is why our cancer care team gets to know you along your journey. While some of our cancer specialists are trained in treating specific cancers, our entire team works together to help you fight your cancer.
Our leukemia specialists are dedicated to providing you with innovative treatments and personalized cancer care. We offer:
- The knowledge you need – Your cancer team is powered by surgeons, doctors and specialists with years of training and experience. Their expertise has been honed by treating many people with blood cancer every year. And their focus is on delivering the care best suited to your needs.
- Care from all sides – Cancer isn’t simple, so we put all our best minds to work on it. Your care team is multidisciplinary, which means it has many physicians from different specialties who come together to create a personalized treatment plan for you. That means you can see your care team in one location, all during the same visit.
- Excellent care where you live – With locations throughout northeast, central and south-central Pennsylvania, our experienced cancer team provides consultations and comprehensive care. We offer leading-edge treatment options and tailored-to-you care, backed by the expertise and innovation of a nationally recognized health system.
- Comprehensive specialty care – From chemotherapy, radiation and minimally invasive surgery options to national clinical trials and genetic testing, our leukemia specialists are dedicated to offering innovative treatment options and personalized care in convenient locations, so you don’t have to travel far. We’ll work with you to develop a personalized care plan based on your individual needs.
- Genetic testing and counseling programs – Special research programs such as MyCode® are only available at Geisinger. Participating in MyCode allows you to contribute to genetic research. By participating, some may receive information about their own genetic risks. Learn about MyCode.
- Cancer survivorship program – Just because your treatment is complete doesn’t mean your journey has ended. We offer a variety of support resources focused on helping you live your healthiest life. Learn about patient resources.