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Singer Etta James terminally ill: What is chronic leukemia?

December 16, 2011|By Jeannine Stein, Los Angeles Times / For the Booster Shots blog
  • Etta James, shown here in 2005, is terminally ill with chronic leukemia.
Etta James, shown here in 2005, is terminally ill with chronic leukemia. (Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty…)

News came today that singer Etta James is terminally ill with chronic leukemia; the Riverside Press-Enterprise also reports that the 73-year-old is suffering from kidney failure and dementia.

Leukemia is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow, where blood cells are produced. When abnormal cells are created they disrupt the function of healthy cells.

The disease can be acute or chronic; in acute leukemia, common in children, immature or early blood cells multiply quickly, and immediate treatment is usually necessary. With chronic leukemia, which often strikes when people are older, there is a proliferation of mature, abnormal cells and the disease can take a long time to progress.

The two most common forms of chronic leukemia are myeloid, or myelogenous, and lymphocytic. Chronic myeloid leukemia begins inside the bone marrow, according to the National Institutes of Health, and although it's linked with an abnormal chromosome, exposure to radiation can also increase the risk of developing the disease.

With chronic lymphocytic leukemia, too many white blood cells called lymphocytes are produced. For both chronic forms of leukemia there may be no symptoms, but when they do appear they can include fatigue, fever, night sweats and pain in the upper abdomen; for lymphocytic leukemia there may also be swollen but painless lymph nodes in the neck, groin or underarms.

Doctors aren't sure of the catalyst that causes chronic lymphocytic leukemia, says the Mayo Clinic, but it may be linked to a gene mutation. Risk factors include being older, male, white and having a family history of blood and bone marrow cancers.

Treatments for more advanced stages of chronic leukemia can include drug therapy, chemotherapy and bone marrow or stem cell transplants.

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