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Causes, Symptoms, Treatment and More


The last thing anyone wants to hear after their breast cancer is in remission is that they need another round of cancer treatment. Unfortunately, this can happen when breast cancer comes back.

It can also happen when a secondary cancer, such as leukemia, develops.

Secondary cancers are cancers that develop as a result of cancer treatments or other risk factors after the original cancer has gone into remission. A secondary cancer can develop months or even years after cancer treatments have finished.

People who have been treated for breast cancer can develop leukemia as a second cancer.

Read on to learn more about the risk of developing leukemia after breast cancer, what causes it to develop, how it is treated, and more.

It is estimated that about 0.5% of people treated for breast cancer develop secondary leukaemia. This is different from a recurrence of breast cancer after remission.

Leukemia after breast cancer treatment is a new and different cancer. It’s not the return of breast cancer.

Leukemia can be acute or chronic. Acute leukemias grow and spread quickly, while chronic leukemias spread slowly.

In most cases, the type of leukemia that develops after breast cancer treatment is acute. Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is the most common type of leukemia to develop as a secondary cancer after breast cancer treatment.

Cancer treatments, such as radiation therapy and chemotherapy, affect both cancer cells and healthy cells. It is known that exposure to radiation can increase the risk of certain cancers.

Additionally, researchers believe that breast cancer treatment damages the DNA inside your bone marrow. The cells inside your bone marrow are responsible for making blood cells. Damage to DNA in the bone marrow can affect the production of blood cells. In rare cases, this can lead to leukemia, as leukemia is a cancer of the blood.

A study 2019 indicated that it is possible that these DNA mutations already exist in some people. This research hypothesizes that chemotherapy and radiation therapy activate pre-existing mutations and may explain why secondary leukemia only affects a small number of people who have received breast cancer treatments.

If further studies confirm these findings, it could allow doctors to identify people at risk for secondary leukemia even before breast cancer treatments begin.

Other cancers after breast cancer

The most common cancer in people with breast cancer is another breast cancer. Having breast cancer once increases your risk of developing other breast cancer tumors.

Other types of cancer that sometimes occur after breast cancer treatment include:

Leukemia can develop months or years after breast cancer treatment. It’s a good idea to keep all follow-up appointments and report any new symptoms to your doctor.

Some leukemia symptoms may seem minor or resemble symptoms of less serious conditions at first, but reporting them early can make a difference in treatment options and outcomes. If you have had symptoms of leukemia for more than a week or two, tell your doctor.

Symptoms of leukemia include:

Your leukemia treatment will depend on several factors, including your general health, how far the leukemia has spread, and how you responded to chemotherapy and radiation therapy during breast cancer treatment.

Remember that leukemia is not a recurrence of breast cancer. It is a new cancer that will need to be treated separately.

Treatment options include:

  • Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy is the main treatment for all forms of leukemia and is used to kill cancer cells.
  • Radiotherapy: Radiation therapy uses energy to kill cancer cells.
  • Targeted therapy: Targeted therapy uses specialized drugs to find, block and kill cancer cells.
  • Immunotherapy: Immunotherapy teaches your immune system to find and destroy cancer cells.
  • Bone marrow transplants: A bone marrow transplant, sometimes called a stem cell transplant, is a procedure that replaces your unhealthy bone marrow cells with cancer-free bone marrow cells. Healthy cells can come either from your own body or from the body of a donor. You can read more about bone marrow transplants here.

The outlook for leukemia depends on a number of factors, including:

  • how far the leukemia has spread at the time of diagnosis
  • your general state of health
  • how well you respond to treatment
  • your age

According to National Cancer Institutebetween 2012 and 2018, the 5-year survival rate for all types of leukemia was 65.7%.

Over the past few decades, survival rates have steadily increased. It is likely that this trend will continue as new, more effective treatment options are developed.

A small but significant percentage of people treated for breast cancer eventually develop secondary leukemia as a result of treatment.

Researchers are still conducting studies to determine what causes this increased risk of leukemia and what can be done to reduce this risk. Currently, it is believed that a combination of known radiation risks and possible pre-existing genetic factors could lead to secondary leukaemia.

It’s a good idea to pay attention to any signs and symptoms you experience after breast cancer treatment and report them to your doctor immediately. Early diagnosis can increase your treatment options and improve your outlook.