No known cause but leukaemia survival rates are on the rise

Leukaemia is a less common cancer, so unless people know somebody with the disease, they tend not to understand it

Leukaemia is cancer of the white blood cells and bone marrow, but it is complicated as it is a whole science in itself. Photograph: Thinkstock

Leukaemia is cancer of the white blood cells and bone marrow, but it is complicated as it is a whole science in itself. Photograph: Thinkstock

Tue, Jul 15, 2014, 01:00

Breast cancer; lung cancer; even brain cancer – the majority of us can understand the concept of a solid tumour growing silently and malevolently in one of our internal organs.

Yet, say leukaemia to people and while they will surely have heard of it, are they able to explain what it is? And do they know that there are both acute and chronic forms of the blood cancer, affecting different age groups and with very different outcomes?

According to the latest data available from the National Cancer Registry of Ireland, over 400 cases of leukaemia are diagnosed in Ireland each year and it accounts for one in 40 deaths in cancer, yet a lack of awareness around the condition persists.

At the recent European Haematology Association Congress in Milan, Italy, results from a survey exploring public awareness and perceptions of one form of leukaemia, acute myeloid leukaemia (AML), illustrated a lack of understanding surrounding the disease.

People didn’t know what age group it affected, or how it is usually treated, and two-thirds of the survey respondents said they thought of blood cancers as being highly treatable. Indeed, certain types are, yet the prognosis for AML remains poor and it is responsible for over 40 per cent of deaths from leukaemia.

According to the Irish Cancer Society’s Naomi Fitzgibbon, leukaemia is a more complex concept to grasp than other cancers. “We explain that it is a cancer of the white blood cells and bone marrow, but it is complicated as it is a whole science in itself.”

Symptoms

Fitzgibbon also notes that the initial symptoms – pain in the joints, bleeding gums, headaches – are quite vague and non-specific. Coupled with the lack of awareness, the patient may thus take a while to be diagnosed.

She adds that leukaemia is a less common cancer, so unless people know somebody with the disease, they tend not to understand it.

Consultant haematologist Dr Eibhlin Conneally of St James’s Hospital agrees, and says that, in her experience, the idea that they have a cancer in their blood is harder to grasp for some people when they receive a diagnosis. “If you talk about breast cancer or lung cancer, the likelihood is that they will know somebody who has had one of those diseases.

“They think of it as a defined type of cancer, whereas leukaemia is a bit more abstract, and there are acute and chronic forms of the condition, so it’s quite a complicated topic,” she explains.

Conneally says she explains to patients that with acute leukaemias, people tend to get sick quite rapidly and require intensive chemotherapy, whereas with chronic leukaemias, people get sick over a longer period of time and can mostly be managed as an outpatient. “For patients who develop chronic myeloid leukaemia or chronic lymphoid leukaemia, there are still some patients who will die from their illness but most patients will simply live with their disease for many many years.”

Child’s cancer

Results from the UK arm of the European survey found that most people believe leukaemia mainly affects children and young people.

This isn’t true but it is the most common cancer in children, says Dr Aengus O’Marcaigh, consultant in paediatric haematology at Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital, Crumlin.