Leukemia can cause a range of symptoms. You might feel weak, dizzy, and nauseous. You might also notice that you’re bruising very easily or that your skin is very pale. These various symptoms happen because leukemia affects different parts of your body.
Some leukemia symptoms will only occur if the cancer spreads beyond your blood or bone marrow, but other symptoms are likely to be present early on. Read on to learn more about the main systems of your body that are impacted by leukemia.
Leukemia is a cancer of the blood, so its impact begins in your blood cells.
First, your body begins producing too many immature white blood cells. These cells are cancerous and overwhelm the other cells in your bloodstream.
Over time, this can affect your red blood cells, platelets, and healthy white blood cells. These changes in your blood can lead to other conditions, such as:
- Anemia. If you have too few red blood cells, that can lead to anemia. When you have anemia, you might notice these symptoms:
- Thrombocytopenia. When your platelet count is too low, it leads to a condition called thrombocytopenia. You might notice:
- A weakened immune system. Immature white blood cells can’t fight off infections the way fully developed white blood cells can. This might mean you have a greater chance of developing infections or catching contagious conditions.
Leukemia can start in your bone marrow where white blood cells are produced. Cancerous, immature white blood cells crowd out the healthy white blood cells in your bone marrow. This can lead to joint and bone pain.
Without treatment, leukemia can also lead to a condition known as bone marrow failure, which shares many symptoms with leukemia, including:
- unexplained bruising
- easy bleeding
Leukemia can impact your digestive system in several ways. It might cause your gums to bleed, leading to mouth discomfort and making it very hard for you to eat.
Leukemia cells can also gather in your liver and spleen. This can cause bloating and a feeling of fullness that will also make it hard for you to eat.
Leukemia can cause bruises and rashes to appear on your skin. Easy bruising is a symptom that might increase as the leukemia progresses and your platelet counts decrease.
Leukemia can also damage your blood vessels and cause capillaries (small blood vessels) to burst. This can lead to small red or purple dots appearing on your skin, also known as petechiae.
Beyond bruising and broken capillaries, leukemia can also cause your skin to look very pale. This happens when you have too few red blood cells.
Leukemia increases your risk of contracting an infection. It also makes you more likely to develop fungal or bacterial rashes.
It’s possible that you might experience shortness of breath when you have leukemia.
This can happen when you do not have enough healthy blood cells to give your body the oxygen it needs. Your body might compensate with shallow or quick breaths to make up for this lack of oxygenated cells.
When cancer cells cluster around this gland, it can become difficult to breathe. You might cough, wheeze, or have trouble catching your breath.
Leukemia can cause you to have headaches throughout the course of the condition. Early on, this can be caused by a lack of healthy, oxygenated blood cells reaching your brain. Headaches are also a frequent side effect of chemotherapy and other leukemia treatments.
Leukemia generally does not directly impact your heart. But research has shown a link between chemotherapy treatment with anthracyclines and heart failure. Medical professionals often use anthracyclines to treat acute lymphocytic leukemia and acute myeloid leukemia.
More research is needed in order to understand this link and what medical professionals can do to help you avoid it.
If you receive a leukemia diagnosis and will be starting treatment soon, you might want to know about your outlook. Fortunately, leukemia treatments have dramatically improved in recent years. Some positive news that you can focus on includes:
- The 5-year survival rate for leukemia more than quadrupled between 1963 and 2015.
- Researchers are currently looking into developing cancer vaccines.
- Scientists have developed new ways of fighting cancer that have proven effective in rats, such as modified natural killer cells.
- Researchers are studying new targeted therapies, immunotherapy, and chemotherapy combinations to help treat leukemia more effectively.
To find support during your leukemia treatment, check out the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. They can match you with support groups near you, as well as online support options. Financial and other support resources are also available.
Leukemia can affect your entire body. Your symptoms might include headaches, easy bleeding, shortness of breath, and more.
The subtype of leukemia that you have and the number of body systems it impacts can cause a wide range of symptoms. This condition impacts your blood, bone marrow, skin, digestive system, and brain. Some leukemia treatments might even affect your heart.
It’s important to talk with your doctors about any symptoms you’re having. They can help you manage them as you continue your leukemia treatments.