Bone Marrow: If you’ve ever seen a skeleton in a movie or a museum, you might presume that bones are just dry, hard, and dead. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Hidden inside is the bone marrow – the soft, spongy, squishy jelly that harbors your stem cells.
Stem cells: Stem cells are the foundation for every organ and tissue in your body. There are many different types of stem cells that come from different places in the body or are formed at different times in our lives. These include embryonic stem cells that exist only at the earliest stages of development and various types of tissue-specific (somatic or adult) stem cells that appear during fetal development and remain in our bodies throughout life. Without manipulation in the lab, tissue-specific stem cells can only generate the other cell types found in the tissues where they live. For example, the blood-forming (hematopoietic) stem cells found in bone marrow regenerate the cells in the blood, while neural stem cells in the brain make brain cells. A hematopoietic stem cell won’t spontaneously make a brain cell and vice versa. All stem cells can self-renew (make copies of themselves) and differentiate (develop into more specialized cells). The hematopoietic (blood-forming) stem cells in our bone marrow regenerate the cells in the blood (red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets). They move out of the bone marrow and into your bloodstream where they’re put to work.
Blood elements: Red blood cells are exquisitely designed to do one job: deliver oxygen around your body, required for our brain to function and our heart to beat. White blood cells are your body’s immune system that normally defends us against infections. Platelets and proteins in plasma normally clot your blood to stop you from bleeding. Under normal circumstances this is a perfectly orchestrated job that follows the theme of life – the old gives way to the new. Each red blood cell survives for about 4 months and is disposed of once they are too battered to go on. Platelets and white blood cells live for only about a week or two, so must be constantly replenished.
In leukemia (blood cancer), the stem cells make a whole lot of cells that don’t act the way they should. They start crowding out normal cells that are trying to do their job. They’re the villains, and what we refer to as ‘blasts’.
Leukemia symptoms are often vague and not specific. You may overlook early leukemia symptoms because they may resemble symptoms of the flu and other common illnesses. If your red blood cells get crowded out, you can start feeling tired, dizzy, pale, and short of breath. If your white blood cells are affected, your body can’t fight infections, so you can get lots of fevers and take longer than usual to heal. If blasts push out the platelets, you can bruise and bleed easily. Eventually, the leukemia cells leave the bone marrow, enter your bloodstream when they’re not meant to, and spread all around your body. You might get symptoms like swollen glands, extreme fatigue, bone, and joint pain. Consult your doctor if you have any persistent signs or symptoms that worry you.
Rarely, leukemia may be discovered during blood tests for some other condition.