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Leukemia Complications

The complications of leukemia include blood problems and impaired bodily functions.

Due to white blood cell abnormalities, leukemia complications can include an increased susceptibility to infection.[©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
Due to white blood cell abnormalities, leukemia complications can include an increased susceptibility to infection.

Leukemia Complications

Leukemia complications include a wide range of infections, blood problems and impaired bodily functions. In some cases, complications may include developing another form of cancer and death. Even though death is possible with Leukemia, new research and better treatment options continue to improve the survival rate. The survival rate may depend on the type of leukemia; certain types of leukemia have a better prognosis than others. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMM), acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) has the best prognosis. The rate of survival within the first five years is between 35 and 45 percent. The long-term survival rate for ALL is at 40 percent. Aside from complications caused by the leukemia itself, several of the treatments for leukemia may cause additional complications.

Leukemia Complications from Infections

Leukemia causes abnormalities in the white blood cells. While healthy white blood cells protect the body against infections and disease, defective cells lose this ability. Without the protective properties of the white blood cells, people with leukemia become more susceptible to infections, which are the most common leukemia complications involved with the disease. People with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) often experience infections in the upper and lower respiratory tract. Doctors can usually treat most infections with antibiotics, but on occasion, a more serious illness may occur that requires additional medical care.

Blood Problems and Leukemia

Along with an increase in infections, people with leukemia may experience complications related to the blood. In some people, leukemia may lead to excess bleeding or bruising. Both may occur when leukemia causes a shortage in the number of platelets in the body. Other people experience an increase in the number of platelets, which can lead to clogging or excessive blood clotting. Clogging in the blood vessels can cause a stroke, lead to bleeding in the brain, and compromise the lungs or damage the heart. In addition to excessive bleeding and clotting, a person with leukemia may develop anemia. This is the result of abnormal white blood cells crowding out healthy red blood cells. People with anemia may feel fatigue as a result of the complication. When white blood cells build up, it can also cause swelling of marrow, which may lead to pain.

Leukemia Complications and Impaired Body Functions

When one part of the body begins to malfunction, it can lead to complications in other parts of the body. In the case of leukemia, the disease may adversely affect the spleen, kidneys and renal areas. In a healthy body, the spleen stores excess blood cells. When levels increase due to leukemia, the spleen may attempt to store more than it can hold, which can cause an enlarged spleen. In rare cases, leukemia can lead to the spleen rupturing. In some rare cases, leukemia may affect the renal area, or the kidneys. As of 2008, researchers need to conduct more studies to determine whether leukemia alone contributes to renal failure or whether renal failure develops in conjunction with the use of some medications.

Leukemia Complications and Other Cancers

As with other leukemia complications, the risk of developing a second form of cancer varies based on the type of leukemia a person has. Patients with CLL have an increased risk of developing an aggressive form of cancer. This complication, known as Richters syndrome, causes the leukemia to switch to diffuse large B-cell lymphoma. In some cases, patients develop a second form of cancer in addition to leukemia. These cancers include:

  • Kaposis sarcoma
  • Melanoma
  • Cancer of the bladder
  • Lung cancer
  • Stomach cancer
  • Cancer of the throat

In addition to these cancers, people with a rare form of leukemia called hairy cell leukemia (HCL) may have an increased risk of developing Hodgkins disease, non-Hodgkins lymphoma or thyroid cancer. In a study reported in the American Society of Clinical Oncology, researchers found that the cumulative risk for this type of complication was five percent within five years of the initial diagnosis, 10 percent within 10 years and 14 percent within 15 years. In this study, the researchers also focused on a link between the development of secondary cancers and treatment for leukemia with interferon (IFN) therapy.

Leukemia Complications and Death

Like most diseases without a cure, possible death is another complication of leukemia. According to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, the different types of leukemia have a survival rate from 46.7 percent to 91.2 percent, depending on the type of cancer and the age of the patients. As research continues, doctors will continue to implement new and better treatment options, though the long term outlook is uncertain.

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