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How Leukemia Affects the Body

Leukemia, a type of cancer that starts in the bone marrow can have profound effects on various organs and systems throughout the body. 

From the bone marrow to the brain, leukemia’s impact can be far-reaching, influencing daily life and necessitating advanced treatment approaches.

How Leukemia Affects Different Parts of the Body

Here are some ways in which leukemia can affect the body:

Bone and Bone Marrow:

Leukemia begins in the bone marrow, where abnormal white blood cells are produced in excessive amounts. These immature white blood cells (WBCs) outnumber the healthy WBCs. This can cause joint and bone pain.

Additionally, overcrowding of leukemia cells in the bone marrow disrupts the normal production of red blood cells (RBC), white blood cells, and platelets. This lack of RBC or platelets can lead to body aches, severe bruising and bleeding. 

Rarely, leukemia can weaken bones to the point where they fracture. This is more common in weight-bearing bones like the pelvis, spine, and thighbone.

Immune System:

Leukemia impairs the immune system’s ability to fight infections. This weakens the immune system. Thus, making the body more vulnerable to serious infections and illnesses.


When cancer cells infiltrate the blood vessels, this causes issues that affect the heart like ischemic cardiac disease. Additionally, several leukemia medicines may increase the risk of heart failure.

Leukemia-induced anemia, characterized by a decrease in RBC, can strain the heart as it tries to pump oxygen-depleted blood throughout the body.

Digestive System:

Leukemia affects your digestive system in various ways. It can make your gums bleed, causing mouth discomfort and difficulty eating. 

Leukemia cells may also accumulate in your spleen and liver. This can lead to bloating and a feeling of fullness, which can further hinder eating. In some cases, the cancer cells may infiltrate the gastrointestinal tract. Thus, leading to gastrointestinal bleeding or obstruction.

Additionally, treatments like radiation and chemotherapy may cause nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. It may also reduce appetite. 

Respiratory System:

Leukemia can cause shortness of breath and coughing, especially  if they develop infections or experience lung complications.

Chemotherapy and radiation therapy can also cause lung damage, further impacting respiratory function.


Leukemia can spread to the central nervous system (CNS), affecting the brain and spinal cord. Symptoms may include headaches, seizures, confusion, or other neurological symptoms.

Advancements in Leukemia Treatment

Treatments for leukemia have advanced substantially in recent years.

1.  Targeted Therapies

Targeted therapies target specific cancer cell components to halt growth or induce cell death when other treatments fail. 

2.  Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy empowers the body to fight leukemia by disrupting the cancer cell’s ability to evade the immune system. 

3.  CAR T Cell Therapy

CAR T cell therapy, an advanced treatment for specific leukemia types, engineers T cells from your blood to combat leukemia, and then reintroduces them into your body.

4.  Bone Marrow Transplantation (BMT)

Bone marrow transplant (BMT), also known as hematopoietic stem cell transplant remains a cornerstone of treatment for leukemia.

This treatment replaces unhealthy bone marrow with healthy cells. These cells can come from your own body (autologous transplant) or a donor (allogeneic transplant). 

High-dose chemotherapy or radiation is given to destroy unhealthy marrow before transplanting the new cells, usually through a chest tube. Hospital monitoring follows for several weeks after BMT.

5.  Chemotherapy

This is the primary leukemia treatment. It uses drugs to kill leukemia cells, administered orally or intravenously.

6.  Radiation

Radiation therapy uses high-dose radiation to kill the cancer cells. Radiation therapy targets specific body areas or whole-body irradiation as needed.

Leukemia’s impact on the body extends beyond the bone marrow, affecting multiple organs and systems. However, advancements in treatment offer hope for improved outcomes and better quality of life for individuals living with leukemia.