Causes and future perspectives
Despite all the advances and constant research, it is still not completely known what causes leukaemia. We know that cases are more common amongst males than females and people of white race are more likely to suffer from the disease than people of black race. However, it is still not certain why some people are affected by the disease and others are not.
Through the study of a large number of cases it has been possible to establish certain risk factors which could lead to the development of the disease. For example, the exposure to a large dosage of high energy radiation, such as that caused by the atomic bombs in Japan during the Second World War, or by accidents in nuclear power plants, can lead to the risk of leukaemia. For that reason, there are many strict regulations in nuclear power plants in order to protect workers and the neighbouring public from any exposure to harmful radiation. On the other hand, the relationship between electromagnetic radiation (mobile phones, telephone and radio masts, etc) and the development of leukaemia, has never been proven.
Some genetic characteristics, such as Down Syndrome could increase the risk of leukaemia. Children born with this condition are more susceptible to the disease. Similarly, the exposure to certain chemical agents, such as benzene, over large periods of time could increase the level of risk. In addition, treatments used to fight other types of cancer can increase the risk of leukaemia. However, the development of leukaemia from chemotherapy represents a minimal risk compared to the benefits it offers.
Scientists have identified a particular virus that appears to increase the risk of developing a rare strain of leukaemia, although there does not appear to be a link between the virus and more common forms of leukaemia. All over the world, researchers continue to study viruses and other possible risk factors. It is hoped that the results of these studies can help to elicit more understanding about the causes of leukaemia, and consequently determine the best forms of prevention and treatment.
The never-ending scientific research into leukaemia has lead to the discovery of new and better forms of treatment and the possibility of finding a cure increases all the time. Despite this, it is normal that many patients and their families show concern about the future.
With the aims of reaching the day when leukaemia is 100% curable and providing a better quality of life for patients, the Josep Carreras Foundation established the José Carreras Institute for Research against Leukaemia, which is the first such entity in Spain to focus solely on the research of malign hematological diseases.
Occasionally, survival rates and other statistics are used in order to determine whether a patient can overcome the disease. However, it is important to remember that the statistics and rates are taken from a large number of cases and they cannot be used to predict the fate of each specific patient. There are no two cases which are identical, and the response to treatment can vary enormously from one patient to the next. Percentages can range from the 90% of cured patients with certain types of acute myeloblastic leukaemia (promyelocytic leukaemia) or with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia in children, to 20% with leukaemia that develops from myelodysplastic syndrome or the exacerbation phases of chronic myeloid leukaemia. It is the Doctor in charge of the patient who is in the best position to make a prognosis, but it is important to bear in mind that even he/she might not be able to predict the final outcome.
It is common for Doctors to talk of survival and remission rather than of a cure. Although many leukemia patients are cured, the disorder can return up to 5 years after it is put into remission.