Spotting leukemia early on can be key in a patient’s fight against it. Diagnosing cancer early can have a significant impact on your chances of survival, response to treatment, and even your quality of life during treatment. (News Medical)
Unfortunately, in many cases spotting leukemia early can be difficult. People in the early stages of leukemia often show no obvious symptoms. So how can you tell early on if you or a loved one has leukemia? Read on for our tips on how to spot leukemia early.
What Is Leukemia?
Leukemia is a cancer of the blood. It’s the result of the DNA of a single cell in the bone marrow becoming damaged (which is also known as a mutation).
Unlike other cancers, it doesn’t produce a tumor but instead causes overproduction of abnormal white blood cells. Since white blood cells are meant to fight infection, abnormal leukemia cells aren’t up to that crucial task.
Hundreds of billions of new blood cells are produced in your bone marrow each day, which provides your body with a constant supply of fresh, healthy blood cells. In large numbers, leukemia cells begin to interfere with the production of other blood cells (Cleveland Clinic).
How Common Is Leukemia?
Even though it’s often considered a disease of children, leukemia affects far more adults. The frequency of certain types of leukemia actually increases with age (Cleveland Clinic). With nearly 30,000 cases diagnosed in the U.S. each year, it truly is important to learn what the warning signs are and catch leukemia early.
Symptoms and How to Catch It:
As we mentioned earlier, many patients with leukemia don’t exhibit any symptoms early on. Particularly in patients with chronic leukemia types, there can be no symptoms at first or just a slow development of symptoms over a long period of time.
In acute leukemia types, patients often very suddenly develop symptoms within a matter of days. It is very common for leukemia diagnoses to be made as an emergency.
Spotting Leukemia based on the following symptoms:
- Anemia is caused by having a lower than necessary count of red blood cells, which slows down the delivery of oxygen to the body’s organs and muscles. It can cause a pale complexion and lack of energy in patients.
- Bleeding can occur in a patient’s gums or nose, or in stool or urine.
- Bruises may develop from very minor bumps.
- Small spots of discoloration called petechiae may form under the skin.
- Patients may be more susceptible to infections like a sore throat or bronchial pneumonia. A headache, or low-grade fever, mouth sores, or skin rash may accompany these infections. (Cleveland Clinic)
- Coughing and trouble breathing can occur when certain types of leukemia cause swelling in structures in the chest, like lymph nodes or the thymus (a small organ in front of the trachea, the breathing tube that leads to the lungs). These enlarged structures can then press on the trachea, causing coughing or even trouble breathing. In some cases where the white blood cell count is unusually high, the leukemia cells can build up in the small blood vessels in the lungs, which can also cause trouble breathing.
- Swelling of the face and arms can also be the result of an enlarged thymus. It can press on the SVC (the superior vena cava, a large vein that carries blood from the head and arms back to the heart). When this happens, it is called SVC Syndrome, which can be life-threatening, so it should be treated immediately. It can cause swelling in the face, neck, arms, and upper chest (sometimes with a bluish-red skin color). It can also cause headaches, dizziness, and a change in consciousness if it affects the brain. (American Cancer Society)
- Swollen lymph nodes can also be a sign of spotting leukemia. Lymph nodes are small, bean-sized structures that contain clusters lymphocytes. Swollen nodes may be seen or felt as lumps under the skin in areas of the body like the sides of the neck, underarm areas, above the collarbone, or in the groin. Lymph nodes inside the chest or abdomen can also swell, but these can only be seen on imaging tests.
- Headache, seizures, and vomiting can occur sometimes in children when the leukemia has already spread to the brain and spinal cord by the time it is diagnosed. Once it has reached the brain and spinal cord, leukemia symptoms can also include trouble concentrating, weakness, problems with balance, and blurred vision. (American Cancer Society)
- A fever that lasts for more than 1 to 2 weeks can also be a warning sign of leukemia.
- General loss of well-being may also occur in patients with undiagnosed leukemia. Patients may have loss of appetite and weight and a feeling of weakness or fatigue all the time. This sign can be especially hard to spot, since the symptoms are the same symptoms of just living a busy life.
Why Are People Delaying Diagnoses?
You may be surprised to learn that in most cases (83% of them, according to a recent survey) patients with these symptoms don’t expect them to be the warning signs for cancer. That 83% of patients reported that they wrote the symptoms off as part of getting older or just the consequences of a busy lifestyle.
A few of the symptoms above are more likely to be caused by something other than leukemia, so it can be easy to dismiss them. Especially if they develop slowly over time, which they sometime do. (American Cancer Society).
One teen in Pennsylvania went a full month playing varsity soccer with undiagnosed leukemia. Schyler Herman was a goalie, so she typically had lots of collisions with the ball and other players, but her parents noticed that she was getting unusually deep bruises from the hits.
She was in a game that went into double overtime one night when another player accidentally kicked her in the calf. A deep hematoma formed, and her parents took her to the emergency room the next day where the X-rays came back negative for a fracture, but Schyler still felt pain.
She went in for more blood work and once the results were in, the doctors suggested she see an oncologist, because they believed she had leukemia. Her blood levels were actually so critical that Schyler was rushed to the Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia for immediate treatment. Schyler couldn’t believe it — she’d been having headaches for the past month and was always fatigued, but she attributed that to the consequences of being an athlete. (Pocono Record)
Even with the symptoms present, it can seem crazy to jump to the conclusion that it’s leukemia that you have. Still, in many cases it is.
How Can You Protect Yourself?
Obviously you can’t assume that every headache and cough will lead to spotting leukemia. Still, there is one major step you can take in protecting yourself:
Often when patients go to their doctor with these symptoms, they either decline to take a blood test or their doctor doesn’t even offer it. Generally a blood test is enough to indicate the diagnosis, but often patients will go weeks (and in some cases even months) without getting a blood test. Instead they’re given antibiotics for the infections or pain killers to relieve the pain, but since they aren’t given a blood test, they’re just putting bandaids on the symptoms without finding the cause. (News Medical)
Which is why if you notice any of these symptoms, you should request a blood test to confirm that the cause isn’t a larger problem, like leukemia.