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Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL)

Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) is a fast-growing cancer of the white blood cells. Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cell that the body uses to fight infections. In ALL, the bone marrow makes lots of unformed cells called blasts that normally would develop into lymphocytes. However, the blasts are abnormal. They do not develop and cannot fight infections. The number of abnormal cells (or leukemia cells) grows quickly. They crowd out the normal red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets the body needs.

Causes and Risk Factors

There are some factors that are known to increase a person’s risk of developing ALL, including previous treatment with chemotherapy or radiation therapy, exposure to large amounts of radiation (such as an atomic bomb), or the presence of a genetic disorder (i.e. Down’s syndrome, Klinefelter’s syndrome). Research has identified viruses, such as Epstein-Barr, HTLV1, and HIV, as potential causes in some cases.

Symptoms of ALL

– Aches in arms, legs, back
– Black-and-blue marks for no apparent reason
– Enlarged lymph nodes
– Fever without obvious cause
– Headaches
– Pale-looking skin
– Pinhead-size red spots under the skin
– Prolonged bleeding from minor cuts
– Shortness of breath during physical activity
– Tiredness
– Vomiting.

Diagnosis of ALL

ALL is diagnosed when blood and bone marrow samples show a large number of abnormal lymphocyte blasts. To find out the type of ALL and how well it might respond to treatment, doctors test samples taken from the blood and bone marrow to learn:
– The size and number of leukemia cells.
– The type of lymphocyte affected — the leukemia cells can begin from one of two types of lymphocytes, B cells or T cells.
– What changes appear in the chromosomes of the leukemia cells. This is called cytogenetics.
Doctors also use a test called a lumbar puncture (or spinal tap) to find out whether there are leukemia cells in the fluid around the brain and spinal cord.

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