Believe it or not, most of the new bllod cells your body produces come from your bone marrow– a fatty compound found in big amounts in the round, bulky ends of your bones. For those suffering from leukemia, one of these new blood cells mutates and becomes cancerous. It then starts to clone– or make copies of itself– which’s how the disease progresses.
“For adults, the common age for leukemia onset is anywhere from 50 to 70,” says Martha Wadleigh, MD, clinical director of the Adult Leukemia Program at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
There are numerous “subtypes” of leukemia, which are defined by the sort of blood cells that mutate, and also by how early in the cell production process that mutation occurs, explains Meredith Barnhart, MS, an information specialist with The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Information Resource Center.
Both Barnhart and Wadleigh make it clear that, when it comes to leukemia, there is no single sign or symptom. “The symptoms depend on the subtype,” Barnhart states. However, there are some overlapping symptoms that have the tendency to appear among those suffering from the more common types of adult leukemia.
Here’s what to keep an eye out for:
1. Pale Skin
“When leukemia develops, brand-new blood cells that are damaged by cancer can overtake bone marrow, therefore making it difficult for healthy cells to grow,” Barnhart explains. “Because you have less healthy cells, you may develop anemia, which can lead to pale skin.” Anemia might also cause your hands to feel cold all the time, experts say.
As is the case with many other illness, fatigue is a common sign of leukemia, Wadleigh says. If you’re feeling tired all the time, and especially if your lack of energy is a noticeable change from how you used to feel, inform your physician. Anemia may also be to blame for your fatigue.
3. Infections or fevers
Your blood cells are an essential part of your immune system. If they’re unhealthy, as is the case for those with leukemia, you can expect to get sick more often, Wadleigh says. “Infections or fevers are one of the most common symptoms we see,” she adds.
4. Shortness of breath
Along with feeling sapped of energy, shortness of breath is something to keep an eye on, Barnhart says. Particularly during physical activity, if you notice you’re out of breath– and that shortness of breath looks like a change from what you’re used to– you’ll want to let your doctor know.
5. Slow Healing
If your cuts and scrapes take forever to recover, or you seem like you bruise easily, those signs might indicate the kinds of blood cell shifts associated with leukemia, Barnhart states. Small red dots on your skin– a condition known as petechiae– could also arise from leukemia, she adds. “Petechiae generally appears on the lower extremities,” Wadleigh includes.
While not as common as the 5 signs mentioned above, night sweats and achy or painful joints are also connected to leukemia, Barnhart says.
“Weight-loss may or may not be a sign, depending on the subtype,” Wadleigh adds. She also mentions nose bleeds, swollen or enlarged lymph nodes, and fever or chills as possible symptoms.