When you have what looks like a bug bite on your body, it’s only natural to assume that it is, in fact, a bug bite. But when one dad saw a doctor for a painful bump on his foot, which he assumed was caused by an insect, he learned that it was actually a sign of leukemia.
Mike Balla ended up visiting the emergency room at the Cleveland Clinic Fairview Hospital after his “bug bite” became swollen, red, and painful, despite two rounds of antibiotics. There, he was diagnosed with adult acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a cancer of the blood and bone marrow that can move quickly if it’s not treated immediately.
Balla was taken via ambulance to the Cleveland Clinic Cancer Centre to begin treatment. He stayed in the hospital for a month, receiving chemotherapy, and his cancer went into remission. He then needed a bone marrow transplant, which he received from his older brother.
The transplant was successful and Balla went back to work. But months later, blood tests revealed that his cancer had returned. “It was upsetting,” he said, per the Cleveland Clinic. “But not surprising. We knew it could happen.”
Balla went through chemotherapy again and started taking a breast cancer drug that scientists hope can also treat AML as part of a clinical trial. Now, he’s back in remission and he’s urging other people to get weird health symptoms checked out. “The hour it takes to go get a checkup could help prevent months of health problems,” he said. “You may think you don’t have time for that. But it’s not true. If you don’t go to the doctor, you may have a much bigger problem.”
What is AML?
Adult acute myeloid leukemia is a type of cancer where your bone marrow makes abnormal myeloblasts (a type of white blood cell), red blood cells, or platelets, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). AML is the most common type of acute leukemia in adults.
Smoking, having previous chemotherapy treatment, and exposure to radiation can increase the risk of developing AML, the NCI says. Men are also at a greater risk of developing the cancer than women.
How common is it for leukemia to look like a bug bite?
This is pretty rare, says Alice Mims, MD, a haematologist with The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute. However, she says, leukemia cells can infiltrate the skin (and even the gums) and cause something that looks like a bug bite.
But, again, it’s not common. “Lots of times, patients feel tired, run down, have a fever, and feel anaemic,” says Aaron Gerds, MD, a haematologist and medical oncologist at Cleveland Clinic who has overseen Balla’s treatment. Patients may also have unusual bleeding or bruising, he says.
Having just one spot is also “incredibly unusual,” but it happens. “Typically, it’s multiple spots, and it’s usually associated with other symptoms, like feeling poor and rundown.” says Jack Jacoub, MD, medical oncologist and medical director of MemorialCare Cancer Institute at Orange Coast Medical Centre.
How should you know if you should get your “bug bite” checked out?
If you have something that looks like a bug bite, you’re pretty safe to assume it’s just that. “If you are feeling wonderful and you get a pimple or bug bite, it almost always is a pimple or bug bite,” says Dr. Jacoub.
“AML is not the most common thing,” Dr. Gerds adds. Still, he says, normal bug bites usually go away or at least get better after a day or two. “If it’s there for a week or two or longer, it’s not a bug bite and needs to be addressed,” Dr. Gerds says.
He emphasises that people should get suspicious symptoms checked out. “If something isn’t acting commonly, we still tend to chalk it up to something common,” he says. “But you only get one body, so you’ve got to take care of it. You’ve got to take care of yourself.”
This article originally appeared on Prevention US