Thursday, December 6, 2012

Leukemia - Causes

What causes Leukemia?

Nobody currently knows the answer to this question. Some believe the illness is connected to a virus. Since identical twins have a much higher risk of developing Leukemia if one sibling has it, there could be a genetic link. The incubation period is unknown but believed to be relatively short. It could be days or weeks from being exposed.

All these unknowns drive me crazy. Many times I have tried to figure out the cause in my mind. 

Thinking back, I could see definite signs of Jemma's Leukemia around three weeks before she was diagnosed. Thinking much farther back to when she was less than a year old she was diagnosed with Renal Tubular Acidosis. Later we were told this was probably a misdiagnosis. Could she have had Leukemia way back then, but it didn't yet bother her? When my mind wanders into the question of "How could she possibly have developed Leukemia?" I think back to what my family did around one month before she was diagnosed.

We were wrapping up our homeschool year and preparing for a summer break. We visited a local wild animal park, played with friends at playgrounds, tie dyed some clothes and went on a cruise. We are a family that is always willing to try new things and up for an adventure. On the cruise we ate many strange foods; ox tail soup, horse meatballs, pheasant, and shark. We visited strange lands. The Turkish tea we drank was delicious, and so was our lunchtime meal. The 1000+ year old cistern was fascinating. Was the water in the hot tub too hot for her? Were there chemicals in the hot tub which reacted badly inside her body?

After visiting the park we made stinging nettle tea. Did she get a tick? At the wild animal park we played with the goats and pigs. The kids loved petting the horses and trying to touch the antlers of the deer and other herbivores in the park. We had a wonderful afternoon tie dying summer clothes with friends. They dye was everywhere. There were kids involved. It certainly got on skin.

Could any of these things be the cause of her Leukemia? Which one? Or is it something even more innocent? Did she touch a piece of metal that had a bad reaction in her body? Did she get a cut from a twig? Did a sick bug bite her? Did she use the wrong public bathroom? Did she walk through the mall, touch the cart, then wipe her nose?

This endless circle of thought keeps replaying in my mind and I still don't have any answers. Now I'm apprehensive about taking another vacation let alone another cruise. I wonder if we should be eating less popular foods deemed safe. What should I do to prevent a relapse? The Leukemia must have come from somewhere? But where?

Perhaps the medical community, or a patient will figure out the answer to this question someday. I know I would like to know.


  1. So hard to not know, such a human need isn't it. Reading through what you were doing, it struck me that as a family you really do enjoy exploring and adventure

  2. My heart jumped to my throat reading this. It must be so hard not knowing what caused your daughter's illness. I am not sure of the correct words that will comfort you, except to say you are a great MOM and you are doing what is best right now to help Jemma overcome Leukemia. Dwelling on the why's will only bring you anxiety. Once Jemma is better you will need to go on adventures again because life is an adventure and worrying about the what if will only leave you with a life that is incomplete. I am praying for you and Jemma.

    1. I know you can relate to this since your children became sick while you were traveling in Africa. I don't think I will ever be as carefree. There's a good chance our travels will bring us to big cities that have quality medical care..... Just in case.

  3. Julie,

    I'm not an expert, but I'm interested in biology and it's been my understanding that all cancers are caused by accumulation of errors (mutations) in our cells' DNA. DNA replication is amazingly precise, but it isn't perfect, and thus it is an inevitable occurrence that variation happens randomly. Every time a human cell divides, we can expect about 2 mutations that occur in the area of the genome that codes for proteins (the important part).

    This mutation rate can be accelerated by environmental "mutagens", such as radiation, viruses, or chemicals. Some of the errors are repaired by the cell, but most serious mutations will cause the cell to "die" (apoptosis) and in this case the mutation will not be passed on. It's possible, though that the cell can mutate in the precise way that causes cancers. The cancer cells are much longer lived than "normal" cells and start to accumulate, spreading their version of the genome with each new division.

    As you also pointed out, people may have a genetic predisposition to certain diseases, and I think cancers are no exception. In some people, it takes fewer mutations for a cell to hit the rare combination that causes the cell to become cancerous. Anyway, it seems to me that this partially explains why there could be multiple causes of Leukemia (and all cancers) and at the same time, no specific cause that is the "smoking gun".

    I know that you may never be as carefree as before Jemma's diagnosis, but I hope that you don't stop living (and blogging about) all of your family's adventures!

    -Max Northup

    1. Max - You must be very interested in biology to have gained that deep of an understanding. You are exactly the type of person who could figure out the cause of different cancers and disease, since you find it interesting, learn about it, yet are not employed in that field of study, and therefore are not influenced by popular opinion.

      That's interesting that the same cancer could have more than one cause. I never considered that. We have been learning more about cells and DNA through our homeschool studies, but still have a lot to learn. I understand that Jemma's DNA didn't properly replicate and this was relatively normal. However, the immune system usually rids itself of such cells yet her's did not. Perhaps her immune system was already busy fighting a virus and didn't have enough resources to take care of the faulty cells as well?

      Thank you for your insight and I hope you continue to learn about biology so you can provide me some more answers in a few years :)


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