Believe it or not, most of the new blood cells your body produces come from your bone marrow—a fatty substance found in large quantities in the bulbous, bulky ends of your bones. For those suffering from leukaemia, one of these new blood cells mutates and becomes cancerous. It then starts to clone—or make copies of itself—and that's how the disease progresses.
"For adults, the typical age [for leukaemia onset] is anywhere from 50 to 70," says Martha Wadleigh, M.D., clinical director of the Adult Leukemic Program at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
There are several "subtypes" of leukaemia, which are defined by the kind of blood cells that mutate, and also by how early in the cell production process that mutation takes place, explains Meredith Barnhart, M.S., an information specialist with The Leukaemia & Lymphoma Society’s Information Resource Centre.
Both Barnhart and Wadleigh make it clear that, when it comes to leukaemia, there is no single sign or symptom. "The symptoms depend on the subtype," Barnhart says. But there are some overlapping symptoms that tend to show up among those suffering from the more common types of adult leukaemia.
Here's what to watch out for:
"When leukaemia develops, new [blood] cells that are damaged by cancer can overtake bone marrow, and so make it difficult for healthy cells to grow," Barnhart explains. "Because you have fewer healthy cells, you may develop anaemia, which can lead to pale skin." Anaemia could also cause your hands to feel cold all the time, experts say.
As is the case with many other diseases, fatigue is a common symptom of leukaemia, Wadleigh says. If you're feeling wiped out all the time, and especially if your lack of energy is a noticeable change from how you used to feel, tell your doctor. Anaemia may also be to blame for your fatigue.
Infections or fevers
Your blood cells are an important component of your immune system. If they're unhealthy, as is the case for those with leukaemia, you can expect to get sick more frequently, Wadleigh says. "Infections or fevers are one of the most common symptoms we see," she adds.
Shortness of breath
Along with feeling sapped of energy, shortness of breath is something to keep an eye on, Barnhart says. Especially during physical activity, if you notice you're out of breath—and that breathlessness seems like a change from what you're accustomed to—you'll want to let your doctor know about it.
If your cuts and scrapes take forever to heal, or you feel like you bruise easily, those symptoms could indicate the kinds of blood cell shifts associated with leukaemia, Barnhart says. Small red dots on your skin—a condition known as petechiae—could also result from leukaemia, she adds. "Petechiae usually appears on the lower extremities," Wadleigh adds.
While not as common as the five symptoms mentioned above, night sweats and achy or painful joints are also linked to leukaemia, Barnhart says.
"Weight loss may or may not be a symptom, depending on the subtype," Wadleigh adds. She also mentions nosebleeds, swollen or enlarged lymph nodes, and fever or chills as possible symptoms.
How diagnosis works
If, based on your symptoms, your doctor suspects leukaemia, he or she will order blood tests to check your white and red blood cell counts, as well as your platelets, Barnhart explains. "If the results raise concerns, you'd be referred to a haematologist—a doctor that specialises in blood disorders or cancers," she says. "More specialised testing can provide a clear-cut diagnosis."
If you're still not sure whether what you're experiencing warrants a doctor's visit, The Leukaemia & Lymphoma Society has excellent resources.
This article originally appeared on Womenshealthmag.com.