Living with leukemia

More than 300,000 people are living with leukemia in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute. Leukemia is a type of blood cancer that develops in the bone marrow — the place where blood cells are made.

The cancer causes the body to make a large amount of abnormal white blood cells, which normally protect the body against infection. All of those damaged white blood cells crowd out healthy blood cells.

Leukemia has a variety of symptoms. Many of these are caused by a lack of healthy blood cells. You may experience some of the following symptoms of leukemia:

  • feeling unusually tired or weak
  • fever or chills
  • unexplained weight loss
  • nighttime sweating
  • frequent nosebleeds
  • occasional rashes and bruises on the skin

One symptom that people with leukemia might notice is tiny red spots on their skin. These pinpoints of blood are called petechiae.

The red spots are caused by tiny broken blood vessels, called capillaries, under the skin. Normally, platelets, the disc-shaped cells in the blood, help the blood clot. But in people with leukemia, the body doesn’t have enough platelets to seal off the broken blood vessels.

Acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) is a form of leukemia that can affect children. AML can affect the gums, causing them to swell up or bleed. It can also create a collection of dark-colored spots on the skin.

Although these spots may resemble a traditional rash, they are different. Cells in the skin can also form lumps, which are called chloroma or granulocytic sarcoma.

If you get a more typical red rash on your skin, it may not be directly caused by leukemia.

A lack of healthy white blood cells makes it harder for your body to fight off infections. Some infections can produce symptoms such as:

  • skin rash
  • fever
  • mouth sores
  • headache

A bruise develops when blood vessels under the skin are damaged. People with leukemia are more likely to bruise because their bodies don’t make enough platelets to plug bleeding blood vessels.

Leukemia bruises look like any other kind of bruise, but there are usually more of them than normal. Additionally, they may show up on unusual areas of the body, such as the back.

The same lack of platelets that makes people bruise also leads to bleeding. People with leukemia may bleed more than they would expect even from a very small injury, such as a tiny cut.

They may also notice bleeding from areas that haven’t been injured, such as their gums or nose. Injuries often bleed more than normal, and the bleeding may be unusually hard to stop.

Although leukemia can leave dark-colored rashes or bruises on the body, it can also take color away from the skin. People with leukemia often look pale because of anemia.

Anemia is a condition in which the body has a low amount of red blood cells. Without enough red blood cells to carry oxygen to the body, anemia can cause symptoms such as:

  • fatigue
  • weakness
  • lightheadedness
  • shortness of breath

Don’t panic if you notice rashes or bruising on yourself or your child. Although these are symptoms of leukemia, they can also be signs of many other conditions.

First, look for an obvious cause, such as an allergic reaction or injury. If the rash or bruises don’t go away, call your doctor.