What is leukemia?
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Leukemia is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow, a malignancy that causes an abnormal production of certain blood cells. As the unhealthy blood cells crowd out healthy ones, the blood and immune system function begins to falter and you may notice physical symptoms. In 2019, doctors will diagnose an estimated 61,780 people with leukemia and about 22,840 people will die from the disease, according to the National Cancer Institute. The disease can get worse quickly if you have a type known as acute leukemia, or progress more slowly and get worse over time if you have a type known as chronic leukemia. While the following symptoms can be subtle signs of leukemia, the same symptoms can also be caused by many other diseases and conditions—many of them benign. If you’re concerned, see your health care provider for an evaluation. Make sure you know the other symptoms of cancer that women commonly ignore.
Fatigue and weakness
Fatigue and weakness are the most common leukemia symptoms, according to Mark James Levis, MD, PhD, the program leader of the hematologic malignancies and bone marrow transplant program at the Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center in Baltimore. These signs are often caused by anemia, which can be due to a red blood cell deficiency that leads to physical exhaustion. In both chronic and acute cases, you may experience a range from slight fatigue to extreme physical weakness, but in all cases, the symptoms worsen over time. “It creeps up on people, that’s the problem,” says Dr. Levis. Here are some of the 50 cancer myths you need to stop believing.
Shortness of breath
Certain types of leukemia impair your production of red blood cells. These cells are charged with carrying oxygen to all of the cells in the body. When there is a dearth of red blood cells, shortness of breath may occur. (Shortness of breath also makes the list of lung cancer symptoms., but can have many other causes too.) As leukemia patients grow weaker and more fatigued, they may also experience shortness of breath that stems from anemia or, in much rarer cases, swollen lymph nodes in the chest. “They’re panting, they’re out of breath,” says Dr. Levis. “Walking across the room might be difficult.”