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Leukemia and your eyes


What is leukemia? Normally cells grow and divide to form new cells as the body needs them; when the cells grow old, they die and new cells take their place.

Sometimes, however, new cells form when the body does not need them whilst the old cells do not die when they should. These abnormal cells are called leukemia cells and the disease is a cancer of the blood or bone marrow characterized by an abnormal proliferation of blood cells, usually the white blood cells (leukocytes).{{more}}

How is leukemia diagnosed? In our physical examination we can find swelling of the lymph nodes, spleen and liver. In the blood test there will be a high level of white cells with low levels of platelets and hemoglobin. A biopsy is also done to get a tissue sample to arrive at the definite diagnosis.

Which of the eye tissue is most commonly affected? The retina is the most commonly affected ocular tissue. Clinically, retinal involvement includes vascular dilation, tortuosity, hemorrhages, cotton-wool spots and peripheral retinal neovascularization (appearance of numerous vessels). The anterior segment may present with conjunctival mass, iris heterochromia (multi-colored iris), anterior chamber cell and flare (which normally does not exist), hyphema (blood in the anterior chamber) and elevated intraocular pressure.

Patients with leukemia should be treated at a medical center that has doctors experienced in treating this disease. These specialists should include hematologists (specialist in diseases of the blood) and medical oncologists (cancer specialists). The treatment depends on the type of leukemia, the extent of the disease, age and health of the patient. Presently there are lots of research (and debate) with various drugs, biological therapy, radiation therapy and stem cell transplantation.

Next week we shall discuss a more common blood disease found in St. Vincent and the Grenadines (sickle cell disease).

Dr. Pedro A. F. Suarez

Consultant Ophthalmologist