Caring Currents

Flu Season Alert: Watch for Signs of Leukemia in Seniors

Last updated: Nov 06, 2008

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Many people are caught by surprise when a someone they're caring for is diagnosed with leukemia. We tend to think of it as a childhood disease, but this is an enormous misconception. In fact, more than 65 percent of people diagnosed with leukemia are more than 55 years old, and leukemia affects ten times as many adults as children. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently acknowledged this reality by adding information about leukemia to NIHSeniorHealth, their website designed specifically for older adults. This is a great source of information for those trying to understand this complicated disease. 

Leukemia is a cancer of the blood cells that starts in the bone marrow, causing the marrow to produce abnormal white blood cells. Like the blobby looking cells in this photo, the leukemia cells eventually crowd out healthy white cells, sapping the body's infection-fighting capabilties. Over time, leukemia cells also crowd out red blood cells and platelets, impairing the blood's ability to carry oxygen and clot.

Symptoms of leukemia can be easy to overlook because they can mimic symptoms of the flu or a bad cold. To tell the difference, ask the person in your care about any possible bone pain or tenderness, swollen lymph nodes, shortness of breath, loss of appetite or weight, and abdominal pain from an enlarged spleen. 

And pay particular attention if the person you're worried about seems to be sick a lot over a period of time. Leukemia is often diagnosed after a period of frequent infections, fevers, and swollen lymph nodes. But doctors may not be paying attention, so it's important for us to be on the alert. My neighbor recently told me that her father was in and out of the doctor's office five times last winter before she noticed how out of breath he was climbing the stairs and asked the doctor if he might have asthma; a more thorough check up revealed leukemia.

There are two types of leukemia: acute, which involves immature blood cells and progresses quite quickly, and chronic, which involves more mature blood cells and can develop slowly over a period of months or even years. The  most common type, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, is the kind most likely to strike those over 55. Chronic leukemia may be diagnosed by a doctor after a routine blood draw shows abnormal white blood cell counts

No one knows exactly why aging increases the chance of developing leukemia, but researchers at Stanford University have suggested that, at least in mice, the problem seems to be aging stem cells. Seniors who smoke or who smoked in the past are at greater risk for leukemia because of exposure to benzene, a chemical in cigarette smoke.

Sometimes, sadly, leukemia develops as a secondary cancer after treatment for another type of cancer. This is because radiation and some chemotherapy drugs increase the risk of leukemia.

Because ongoing or recurrent flu-like symptoms can indicate leukemia, those caring for seniors need to be on the alert during this winter's flu season for signs that an illness is more than it seems.

Image of chronic lymphocytic leukemia in a 70-year-old woman by Flickr user Euthman used courtesy of Creative Commons Attribution License.