One of the clearest paths to getting to know your leukemia includes getting to know the basics of healthy bone marrow, blood and lymphoid tissue. By understanding the role of these important tissues and blood, you get closer to understanding how cancer affects your body.
The soft, spongy inner tissues of some bones – called bone marrow – consists of blood stem cells, mature blood-forming cells, supporting tissues and fat cells. Marrow exists in your skull, shoulder blades, spinal bones, ribs and pelvis, as well as some other bones.
New blood cells come from blood stem cells that go through multiple changes. These changes differentiate the blood cells as one of three key types: Red blood cells, platelets and white blood cells. White blood cells further differentiate into lymphocytes, granulocytes and monocytes.
Red blood cells maintain the most visible role in your body, that of carrying oxygen from your lungs to every other part of your body. These cells feed all of your body’s tissues, then carry carbon dioxide waste to your lungs, where the carbon dioxide leaves the body.
Platelets come from your bone marrow cells called megakaryocytes. These important blood clotting cells are actually cell fragments. They stop bleeding by plugging blood vessel holes from cuts and bruises.
Taskmasters of fighting your infections, white blood cells keep you alive and healthy. The three types of white blood cells are lymphocytes, granulocytes and monocytes.
Lymphocytes make up your lymphoid tissue. Lymphoid tissue plays an important role in your immunity, being located in your lymph nodes, spleen, tonsils, adenoids, thymus and throughout your digestive system, respiratory system and bone marrow.
Cells called lymphoblasts develop into lymphocytes, eventually maturing into infection fighters. Two types of lymphoctyes include B lymphocytes and T lymphocytes, referred to as B cells and T cells.
B lymphocytes ward off invading bacteria, viruses and fungi. They do this by developing into plasma cells, making proteins. These are your antibodies, the proteins helping your immune system destroy germs by attaching to them.
T lymphocytes include several types of cells tasked with specific roles in immunity. Some destroy germs and others help speed up or slow down your immune system cells.
Acute lymphocytic leukemia starts when young lymphocytes – B cells or T cells – go through abnormal changes.
Granulocytes are white blood cells containing granules of enzymes and other germ-destroying substances. These substances appear as spots when you view the cells under a microscope. Granulocytes include three types of cells, each appearing different according to their granule size and color. These three types are neutrophils, basophils and eosinophils.
Monocytes help protect your body from bacteria by traveling through the bloodstream into body tissues. In the tissues they transform into macrophages, surrounding and digesting germs.
Leukemia develops in any of the young blood-forming cells of your bone marrow. This change stops the cells’ normal maturation, leading them to reproduce too quickly and not die when they should. These cells build up too quickly in your bone marrow, overflow into your bloodstream and spread throughout your body.