As a clinician, it’s useful to be aware of misconceptions your patients might have about various conditions. We review 6 myths about leukemia you might encounter at your practice.

Myth #1: There’s only one type of leukemia

Patients sometimes assume that leukemia refers to one condition. Inform them that clinicians classify the cancer based on how quickly it progresses (acute or chronic) and which blood cells it affects (lymphocytic or myelogenous). As such, there are 4 main types of leukemia: acute lymphocytic (ALL), acute myelogenous (AML), chronic lymphocytic (CLL), and chronic myelogenous (CML).1

Myth #2: Leukemia mainly affects children

Leukemia is the most common childhood cancer, accounting for approximately 28% of all cases.2 However, children represent a small fraction of patients with leukemia. In fact, the majority of new cases are diagnosed in patients aged 65 years and older.3 The prevalence of different types of leukemia varies by age group: whereas ALL is the most common form of leukemia in young children, CLL is the most common type of chronic leukemia in adults.1

Myth #3: Leukemia symptoms are highly specific

Leukemia symptoms are generally nonspecific and can be easy for patients to overlook because they resemble those of other common illnesses. Each case is unique and symptoms vary from one patient to the next. However, common signs of the disease include fever, tiring easily, pale skin tone, easy bruising and bleeding, swollen lymph nodes, unplanned weight loss, joint pain and tenderness, night sweats, and frequent infections.4

Myth #4: Survival is rare

Reinforce with your patients that their chance of surviving leukemia is influenced by numerous factors including age, type of leukemia, how far the disease has progressed, and response to treatment. It’s possible to treat the cancer and prevent it from re-emerging with interventions such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and stem cell transplant.1 These measures are often successful: according to the National Cancer Institute, 62.7% of patients survive 5 years or more after being diagnosed with the disease.3

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Myth #5: We know what causes leukemia

The precise cause of leukemia is unknown, but scientists suspect the disease develops when blood cells acquire mutations in their DNA, altering the cells’ ability to function normally. As time passes, the altered cells crowd out healthy blood cells in the bone marrow, resulting in fewer healthy white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets.1

Myth #6: All forms of leukemia require immediate treatment

Patients diagnosed with a chronic form of leukemia that is not presenting with symptoms may not require immediate treatment. Instead, they may benefit from “watchful waiting,” in which the patient’s healthcare team observes the cancer and, if it becomes more active, starts therapy. This approach is designed to avoid side effects that may occur with treatment options such as chemotherapy and biological therapy.5

Help your patients better understand leukemia by sharing this article with them.

References

  1. Leukemia. Mayo Clinic. March 13, 2018. Accessed January 21, 2020.
  2. Cancer in children: types of cancer that develop in children. American Cancer Society. Updated October 14, 2019. Accessed January 21, 2020.
  3. Cancer stat facts: leukemia. National Cancer Institute. Accessed January 21, 2020.
  4. Leukemia. Cleveland Clinic. Reviewed November 19, 2019. Accessed January 21, 2020.
  5. Watchful waiting for chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Canadian Cancer Society. Accessed January 23, 2020.