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Women and Leukaemia

written by

Leukaemia Care, Charity

  • Hayley Welch - 05 copy-WEB

This International Women’s Day, we’re giving you an insight into the women diagnosed with leukaemia. While leukaemia may be more commonly diagnosed in men, 2 in 5 leukaemia patients (42%) are women and it is a diagnosis that affects women of all ages.

Leukaemia is a blood cancer that causes the overproduction of white blood cells that normally fight infection. The leukaemia cells begin to take over space within the blood, causing a reduction in healthy blood cells. The type of white blood cell affected, and the progression of the cancer, are the two distinguishing factors between leukaemia types.

Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) is a quickly progressing type of leukaemia and represents around 10% of diagnoses in women. Between 2013 and 2015, 60% of these cases were in children and teenage girls up to 19 years old. Kate Sturgess is an example of one of these girls, being diagnosed with ALL at the age of 15.

As with many teenagers, she put her fatigue down to working late nights and hanging out with her friends until the early hours. The sore throats and headaches weren’t stopping her from doing her normal daily tasks and so believed it to just be an infection, something which her first visit to the GP reinforced.

In fact, frequent or reoccurring infections are experienced by 1 in 5 women (21%) before diagnosis, and fatigue is the most common symptom experienced by 3 in 5 women (61%). Headaches are also far more likely in women than men, reported by 19% of women compared to just 8% of men. 

Another quickly progressing type of leukaemia is acute myeloid leukaemia (AML), which accounts for 40% of leukaemia diagnoses in women. Unlike ALL, this is far more likely to be diagnosed in older women and is one of the most common leukaemia diagnoses in those aged 25 to 65 years old.

A particular issue for women in this age group is putting their symptoms down to menopause. For example, Julie Abell, who was diagnosed with AML at 49 years old, said, “I had an awful, heavy period, passing huge amounts of clotted blood, which I put down to the menopause, and I was tired and exhausted.” With leukaemia being a cancer of the blood, issues around easily bleeding are not uncommon (together with easily bruising, it is experienced by 1 in 3 women) and, as mentioned before, fatigue is the most common symptom. 

There are further rarer types of acute (quickly progressing) leukaemia, but the other two main types of leukaemia are chronic. These are slowly progressing types of leukaemia that can typically be managed, but not cured. 41% of women diagnosed with leukaemia, are diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL) making it the most prevalent type.

Diagnosed at the age of 42, Lisa Henley-Durcan was a relatively young person to be diagnosed with CLL (just 4% of patients are below 50 years old). She was feeling tired, run down and was experiencing more sweating than normal, but put this down to the stress of balancing work and caring for her dad. Her GP gave her antibiotics for tonsillitis and ran tests for other illnesses, when after a number of weeks, a simple blood test, followed by a bone marrow sample, revealed she had CLL.

The increased sweating (also described as fever or night sweats) that Lisa experienced is also reported by almost 1 in 3 women (31%) before diagnosis. Night sweats are defined as “not just getting a little warm at night”, but better described as “night drenches”. They are a consequence of increased metabolism due to the increased number of leukaemia cells requiring more energy to function – much like your muscles needing more energy when you are exercising.

Fever or night sweats is often experienced by chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) patients before diagnosis, being the most reported symptom by patients behind fatigue. Of the four main types of leukaemia, CML is the least common in women (9% of leukaemia diagnoses) and is, again, more often diagnosed in older women.

Many of these women are diagnosed by routine blood tests without experiencing symptoms. For example, Frances was diagnosed in her 80s during a routine blood test. Others, however, do experience symptoms, such as Hayley Welch, who had lost weight and experienced repeated infections.

Weight loss is experienced by 1 in 5 women prior to diagnosis and many people find explanations for this, such as stress. Very often, patients don’t realise quite how much weight they have lost and envisage it as a good sign initially, as opposed to being a sign of leukaemia.

The common theme underlying all these women’s diagnoses, and indeed those of many other leukaemia patients, is that many attribute their symptoms to other causes. This demonstrates how the symptoms of leukaemia are vague and, therefore, difficult to spot.

The most common symptoms of leukaemia in women are:

  1. Fatigue
  2. Feeling weak or breathless
  3. Sleeping problems
  4. Easily bruising or bleeding
  5. Frequent or repeated infections
  6. Pain in bones or joints

Recognising several symptoms could indicate leukaemia. A simple blood test from the GP is all it takes to either confirm or reject a diagnosis. Ensure that you can Spot Leukaemia by downloading our symptoms card or reading the full list of symptoms here.

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