What happens in the blood in a patient with acute lymphocytic leukemia?

I understand the basics of leukemia. I know it happens in the bone marrow and it affects the genes and cell structures of red or white blood cells and/or platelets.

But how exactly does a person die from leukemia? Is it safe to assume that the body runs out of oxygen because the red blood cells become too abnormal to carry oxygen around the body?

2 Answers

  • 1 decade ago
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    "Deb" is mostly right - but liver and kidney function problems are not as common as bone marrow failure. It is not true that the body runs out of oxygen because the red blood cells become too abnormal to carry oxygen. The red cells can still transport oxygen in acute leukemia patients

    I can explain this simply for you.

    The immature malignant leukemia cells reproduce without control and crowd out the normal blood cell production in the bone marrow - so red cells - platelets - and the various types of normal infection fighting white cells - cannot be produced. It's like weeds overgowing in a garden and choking out the good plants.

    Roughly 2/3's of our patients die from infections because they don't have normal bacterial and fungal fighting white blood cells. We can't transfuse normal white cells effectively.

    About 1/3 of patients with acute leukemia die from bleeding due to low platelets. We can transfuse platelets, but it's hard to keep up when people make none of their own.

    Oxygen transport is not usually the problem - except for the acute bleeds at the end. We can transfuse red blood cells effectively.

    So why can we transfuse red cells so much more effectively than platelets or white blood cells? Normal red cells last some 120 days. Platelets in healthy people last maybe 10 days at best - though transfused platelets usually only last a day or two. Bacteria and fungal infection fighting neutrophils (white blood cells) last a matter of hours. They need to be made daily by the bone marrow. It's difficult to harvest enough normal white cells from donors to transfuse and make a significant difference to help patients.

    Bottom line - infections end the lives of most leukemia patients - bacterial, fungal, viral, or all of the above.

    Source(s): MD hematologist/oncologist
  • My daughter is being treated for acute lymphoblastic leukemia also known as ALL.

    It is a white blood cell that reproduces madly and without treatment they take over the body. In other words the kidneys start to shut down, the liver cannot function properly because the cancer cells are flooding the system.

    But, the survival rates are climbing all the time. With pediatric leukemia (there are many different types) ALL has a survival rate if 87 percent. Recently, it has been proposed to use the pediatric protocols with adult patients and this has been successful. I believe studies are ongoing with this right now.

    Leukemia is a treatable cancer! Statistically patients die from complications like pneumonia, and fungal infections not from the actual leukemia. At least this is what I have personally seen while at the hospital and talking to other patients.

    I put together a website for people with cancer that has lots of tips, medical info, and resources. The site address is www.freehelpforcancer.com

    If you have leukemia, it can be beat!


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