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What Is Plasma Cell Leukemia?

Red blood cells are replaced by abnormal cells with plasma cell leukemia.
A bag of blood plasma.
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  • Written By: Amy Hunter
  • Edited By: Andrew Jones
  • Last Modified Date: 28 July 2014
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Plasma cell leukemia (PCL) is a rare and aggressive form of cancer that may develop on its own, or from an existing case of multiple myeloma. In PCL, the plasma cells reproduce rapidly in the blood. Long term survival rates for this condition are poor. The disease is diagnosed with a bone marrow biopsy and blood tests.

Men and women are equally likely to develop plasma cell leukemia, which most often develops in individuals between the ages of 50 and 60. Symptoms of plasma cell leukemia include frequent infections, anemia, fever, or kidney failure. The illness can also lead to bone loss and fractures.

PCL and the related disease, multiple myloma, are cancers of the plasma cells. Plasma cells are a type of white blood cell that produces antibodies. When these abnormal plasma cells reproduce and cluster in the bones, they create lesions that can lead to fractures.

The bone lesions interfere with the body's ability to produce normal cells, which fight infection and carry oxygen through the body. When the abnormal cells attack the bone, it can lead to increased calcium levels, which can cause a strain on the kidneys, as well as confusion and weakness. The increased calcium levels is the result of calcium from the diseased bone entering the bloodstream as the bone dissolves.

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Fatigue and frequent infections are two other common symptoms of plasma cell leukemia. Fatigue develops because abnormal cells take the place of red blood cells in the body. The job of the red blood cells is to carry oxygen through the body, and low red blood cell counts sap the body's energy.

Infections, such as shingles, skin infections, pneumonia, and bladder and kidney infections, are common in individuals with PCL. These infections develop because the abnormal cells prevent the body from producing antibodies. With the immune system compromised, these infections tend to become rampant.

The symptoms of multiple myloma and plasma cell leukemia are similar. PCL being more aggressive with poorer survival rates. Individuals with PCL have a greater frequency of organ involvement, a greater number of tumors, high blood calcium levels, and lower platelet counts.

Treatment for plasma cell leukemia includes aggressive chemotherapy, as well as stem cell transplants. Side effects of this treatment include weakness, anemia, and nausea. Aggressive chemotherapy regimens, using a combination of drugs, increases the survival rates from two to six months to 18 to 20 months. Stem cell transplants may provide a two to three year disease-free survival window.

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