This is a form of leukaemia
. In layman's terms
, it's like this: inside your bones
there's this soft stuff called bone marrow
, which makes blood cells
. There are red blood cells
and white blood cells
. Red blood cells take oxygen
around the body
(when you have a shortage of these you get very tired), white blood cells fight infection
, so without these you would catch an illness
and be unable to recover. AML means that a faulty white blood cell has been made that doesn't do anything, and is reproducing
and taking over from the other white blood cells. This obviously means you can't fight illnesses.
Symptoms vary, leukaemia is spotted because the person picks up an infection and doesn't recover. Since the infection that the person picks up will vary, the symptoms are not always the same. They may include the following: Feeling very tired, looking pale or yellow (jaundice, particularly in the eyeballs), sickness, fainting, nosebleeds (due to lack of platelets which deal with blood clotting, I had one that lasted six hours during treatment), bruising more easily. The symptoms can in fact be very vague, so leukaemia is not very easily spotted. I know people who've had the disease who were only taken to hospital when they fainted and fell down the stairs. It's also worth pointing out; please don't think that just because you faint, have a nosebleed, or feel quite knackered today, that you are getting leukaemia. Still, if you think there's something wrong, go see your doctor.
AML is more common in older people, but also occurs in young people sometimes. I myself had it at age 16, and met others of a similar age with the same type. People with Downs Syndrome are more susceptible to it. The other most common type of leukaemia is Acute Lymphatic Leukaemia (ALL). The main differences between the two, besides biological information that I'm not too familiar with, is that the treatment for AML is shorter, but more intense (usually about 4-6 months), whereas ALL is treated over a longer time (Two years for boys, three years for girls, it's not quite clear why there's a difference), with treatment more spaced out.
Chemotherapy is used to treat both types, but the treatments are very different. From here on I will focus on AML. There are various treatment programmes, and there's still some research going on (I'll mention this later), but the treatment available is very effective. There is, however, a small chance that the patient may not respond to the chemotherapy.
The first thing I thought of when told I had Leukaemia was loss of hair and lots of needles, and being sick, and this is probably what most people think of. Yes, your hair does falls out (I know what some of you may also be thinking now, and the answer's yes...), but it grows back after you've recovered, and it's interesting to see yourself with no hair. Hair may also grow back differently (e.g. darker, lighter, curlier, I even knew a lady who was going grey, and her hair grew back the colour it used to be!). I was fortunate enough to be on a children's ward, so needles were actually minimal. I had a tube put in that went into a vein near my heart, this was used for taking blood and giving treatment, and is completely painless (I also find general anaesthetics quite fun, although some people don't), I did find it to be an annoyance, but it's far better than having ten needles stuck in you everyday in my opinion. Oh, and I never vomited, they gave me pills that prevented you from being sick. I only ever retched once, and that was because of an allergy to an anti-biotic, which most people won't have. That's not to say there weren't other unpleasant symptoms though.
The AML treatment I received was 4 lots of treatment each lasting a few days (ranging from 10 days to 3 or 4). The aim of it is to destroy the faulty white blood cells. After each treatment, you have virtually no immune system, but are given anti-biotics regularly. I was allowed to go home inbetween treatments since I was just as vulnerable there as in hospital. When I had a temperature, I would have to go back, and as soon as they'd got rid of the infection, I would start the next round. I also received occasional injections into the spine (I received an anaesthetic, but apparently those on adult wards don't), which they also used to check the bone marrow (it's an orangey liquid kind of stuff). Most of the time, the leukaemia cells seem to be gone after the first treatment, but the rest is to really knock them out.
I was offered an extra treatment. The thing was, families of patients under sixteen were asked if they would like to take part in trials for this extra treatment. They could accept, decline, or the decision could be made randomly. Since I was over sixteen, but on the children's ward, I had to decide myself. So far this treatment doesn't seem to have made any difference to the effectiveness of the overall treatment, either for better or worse. The dilemma for families, however, is that if you relapse, you'll never know if it was because of the extra treatment, or because of not having the extra treatment, or if it even made any difference.
Side effects of the treatment are likely to include: Diarrhoea, constipation, stomach aches, vomiting (despite the anti-sickness pills), loss of weight, tiredness, generally feeling rough (that's not a medical term by the way). Some of the chemo affects the way the body replaces its cells (skin cells, stomach lining, lining of the mouth etc.), so dry skin and mouth ulcers are two other symptoms. Also some of the drugs do things like turn your urine funny colours (sometimes orange, sometimes green) or make you smell funny (and no it's not just me).
After the treatment is over, there will be regular check-ups from the doctors. At first, they will take blood to check you are not relapsing (that means the leukaemia has come back). The check-ups become less regular until they are about once a year, probably for the rest of your life. Generally, if you have not relapsed after five years, it is almost certainly not going to come back, and most relapses occur before a year has passed since finishing treatment. People have still relapsed after just over 5 years though. It is quite a worry for people who have been through it. I myself get quite nervous whenever I am unwell, or even feeling a bit rough, although I haven't spoken to many other people about how they feel. Another worry is that chemotherapy (since it is basically filling your body with powerful chemicals) can leave you more susceptible to secondary cancers.
There are some things I want to point out. Firstly, some people go looking all over the internet for information about Leukaemia. However, it's not a good idea to trust everything you read. There are people out there who don't have their facts sorted, and some people who deliberately tell lies. People have various reasons of their own for doing this. Some good advice for someone who has the condition is to tell your friends not to believe everything they read about it, since it may either be out-of-date, or untrue. Instead, ask the doctors for information, or consult reliable sources (you'll probably be given a leaflet at the hospital), and tell your friends about it yourself. In fact, a woman who worked at the hospital offered to give my friends a talk about the disease, and the things they should be careful of. Chicken Pox is one thing that can be very dangerous to chemo patients for example, as are vaccines since they are actually small doses of the disease, but there are also hygiene issues to be aware of that you wouldn't normally think of, and certain foods that chemo patients can't eat, such as mayonnaise and seafood. You also can't bring them flowers (sorry) because bacteria breed in the water.