Leukemia in the elderly
Leukemia, usually thought to be a childhood cancer disease, affect more older adults than children. Statistics given by the National Cancer Institute state that, leukemia is a common diagnosis amongst the elderly aged 65 years to 74 years.
Leukemia, commonly known as blood cancer. Is a type of cancer that affects the replication of the WBCs (white blood cells) in the bone marrow. The rapidly growing cancer cells soon outgrow the number of healthy cells in the body. Severely affecting the body’s immune system to fight off the disease.
Leukemia is basically categorized under 2 broad categories. Based on the type of blood cells affected and the rate at which the cancer progresses.
The first criteria of classification is on the speed of cancer progression.
In this type, the cancer spreads rapidly and affects the immature blood cells. The affected blood cells fail to carry out their normal functions, and the disease rapidly worsens.
In this type, the disease progression is very slow and more often affects the mature blood cells the most. The cells do replicate, but at a slow rate and they can carry out their normal function for quite some time. Initially, people with chronic leukemia do not show any symptoms, as a result of which, the disease often goes undiagnosed.
The second criteria of classification is on the type of cells that it affects:
As the name suggests, the affects happen in the lymphocytes tissue.
In this type, the affects happen in the myeloid cells. The myeloid cells comprise of the red blood cells, platelet producing cells and white blood cells.
Signs and symptoms of leukemia in older adults
The preliminary symptoms of leukemia may be very general.
These signs can occur due to a variety of different causes, and may not always mean cancer.
Therefore, in order to distinguish leukemia from other diseases. It is necessary that we first understand the nature of the symptoms our elderly are suffering from. For example, there is an appreciable amount of difference in the nature of fatigue suffered by a normal individual and the type of fatigue experienced by a person suffering from cancer.
Following is a complete guide on symptoms of leukemia:
This is one of the most common symptoms of leukemia. The nature of fatigue associated with cancer is kind of dramatic in nature. Feeling tired or fatigued after lack of sleep is normal. Which usually gets fine after proper rest and a good night’s sleep. However, this is not the case with adults suffering from leukemia. Older adults with leukemia will complain of fatigue. Which does not improve after proper rest and sleep. This kind of fatigue, often termed as cancer–related–fatigue (CRF). Gradually begins to interfere with their daily activities. Fatigue can occur due to leukemia associated anemia. Which causes the oxygen depletion from the cells, that not only causes weakness. But also shortness of breath. Leukemia, can also lead to the lowered production of serotonin and tryptophan. Which are key elements for proper mental functioning.
Bruising in patients with leukemia, occurs when the production of platelets falls considerably. As the cancer cells outgrow the number of healthy cells. Decreased production of platelets is thrombocytopenia. Which not only causes easy bruising, but can also lead to nosebleeds, blood in urine and stools, heavy bleeding during periods as well as bleeding gums.
This is also seen as a common symptom for patients with leukemia. However, night sweats are also a common phenomenon with women in their menopause. But again the nature of the symptom experienced in both the cases is pretty different. Patients with leukemia describe their night sweats as getting drenched through the clothing and the mattresses. This can occur both during the night and day time.
Fever for no apparent reason
Fever without any underlying causes, can signal cancer, especially leukemia. In such cases, the fever measures more than 101 degrees and lasts 3 or more weeks. Elderly with leukemia experience fever, because, the body releases chemicals, which in turn stimulates the brain to raise the body temperature.
Enlarged lymph nodes
Enlargement of the lymph nodes, occurs when the cancerous cells begin to accumulate in and around the lymph nodes. The lymph nodes situated in the armpit, neck and groin can become tender and swollen.
Unexplained weight loss remains the classical symptom of all forms of cancer and usually suggests an advanced stage. The weight loss is more commonly seen in the chronic form of leukemia than in the acute forms.
Pain in the bone and joints
When a large number of unhealthy white blood cells cover the bone marrow, it triggers bone and joint pain.
Pain in the abdomen
In patients with leukemia, their abdomen tends to swell due to accumulation of large numbers of white blood cells in the spleen and liver. Such a type of phenomenon, can decrease the appetite. The liver will cause your loved one to complain of pain in the left upper abdomen. And the spleen will cause the pain in the upper right abdomen.
Complications of leukemia
Complications are bound to happen due to deficiency of several white blood cells. The most common complications include the following:
While repeated infection is a symptom of leukemia. Severe infections are bound to follow, owing to the severe drop in the count of white blood cells in the body. White blood cells strengthen the body’s ability to fight infections. And a reduction in the number of the cells adversely affects the body’s immunity. A severe depletion of the white blood cells, significantly affects the body’s immunity. Making it more prone to suffer from severe form of infections. The immunity gets compromised to the extent that, even minor infections such as urine infection, skin infections, pneumonia can be life threatening.
In patients with leukemia, the platelet count becomes low, causing unusual bleeding in them. However, when there is bleeding from certain regions of the body, it can get life threatening. Examples include:
Intra cranial hemorrhage
Bleeding in the intra cranial region of the brain, can cause confusion and even loss of consciousness.
Bleeding inside the lungs, can cause the elderly to experience shortness of breath and they can even cough up blood.
Bleeding that occurs in the stomach or intestine, can cause the elderly to vomit large amounts of blood, which can lead to a drop in blood pressure.
Managing the side effects of leukemia treatment
Chemotherapy and radiation therapy form the main line of treatment of leukemia. While these methods, rapidly kill the cells of cancer. They are also known to affect the other cells of the gastrointestinal tract, blood and hair, causing side effects.
The nature and severity of side effects will largely depend on the type of drugs that they use for treating, length of the treatment as well as the drug dosage. In addition, if chemotherapy along with other treatment methods, the severity of side effects increases by many folds. Below is an extensive list of side effects of leukemia treatment and the many ways you can help your elderly cope with these:
Tiredness or fatigue
Feeling tired is natural, as chemotherapy drugs cause the red blood cell count to drop significantly. Making your loved one anemic and leaving them feeling tired. If your loved one suffers from severe anemia.It is best to take them to the hospital, so that they can get a red blood cell transfusion.
The chances of infection increases to a great extent. If your loved one is receiving chemotherapy, causing the white blood cell count to go down. This makes your elderly frequently susceptible to infections. So, in case you notice signs of infection in your elderly, such as fever, consult the doctor at once. As preventive measures, make sure you and your elderly practice good personal hygiene. In addition, avoid visiting gardens and don’t eat raw salads, because of bacteria, molds and germs.
Chemotherapy drugs also affect the cells of the gastrointestinal tract. Making your loved one suffer from bouts of diarrhea and constipation. In such cases, the doctor may prescribe stool softeners or anti – diarrhea medications. In the meantime, as a caregiver, you can always make changes in the diet with the help of a dietitian. To take care of the gastrointestinal disturbances.
When the platelet count runs low, then your loved one may experience bleeding from nose, stool or urine. In such cases, it is always best to take precautions, like using a soft toothbrush for brushing, a soft razor for shaving. You can also tell your loved one not to over strain during bowel movements. All these little steps, can help in preventing bleeding. If there is excessive bleeding, then platelet transfusion remains the best option.
Hair loss is again a major side effect of chemotherapy treatment. Your loved one may not always treat it as a good sign. In such a scenario, you can always consider getting them a wig, if they are willing to go with it.
Soreness in the mouth
Mouth sores can really make matters difficult for your loved one. Not only do the sores make eating difficult, but they are extremely painful too. Therefore, it is best to avoid spicy foods as well as alcohol, which can irritate the sores. Moroever, if your loved one fail to practice good personal hygiene, then, the sores can get infected. Hence, it is necessary to rinse mouth using baking powder and water solution. For this, you would need to mix one half of a teaspoon of baking powder in 8 ounces of water.
Lukemia is a very difficult disease. But with love, patience and determiniation, you will get through it. My tip and suggestions will help you through some tuff times. I had a dear friend pass from it and my sister died at the age of 5 from it, so I know to well how it works.
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