DEAR DR. DONOHUE: I am a 55-year-old man, and I hadn’t seen a doctor for more than 15 years. I feel and felt quite well. My wife nagged me into getting a physical examination. Prior to the physical, I had some lab tests done. When I saw the doctor, after he examined me, he said he thought I had leukemia because my white blood count was high. I jumped like I had an electric shock. The doctor sent me to a hematologist, and I do have leukemia – chronic lymphocytic leukemia. I am not taking any medicine. My wife finds this hard to believe. Should I be on something? – H.H.

“Leukemia” is a word that provokes terror. It’s cancer of white blood cells. Some leukemias have to be treated with great respect and call for immediate medication. Chronic lymphocytic leukemia, however, is not one of those illnesses. It’s the most common kind of leukemia in North America. It strikes more men than women, and usually comes on later in life. Chronic lymphocytic leukemia is not usually an illness that greatly reduces the number of years a person expects to live.

In this leukemia, one kind of white blood cell, the lymphocyte, undergoes a population explosion. Lymphocytes are part of the body’s immune system. They’re involved in producing antibodies that help wipe out germs. Most people with chronic lymphocytic leukemia discover they have it the same way you did. They have a blood count that shows high numbers of these white blood cells. Usually they have no symptoms. Such symptomless people, whose only sign of illness is a high lymphocyte count, have, for the most part, a good prognosis. These people don’t need treatment. Their doctors follow them with examinations and with blood counts.

If a person with this illness begins to have symptoms such as fever, chills, weight loss and recurring infections, then treatment is instituted. Other indications for treatment are a drop in the red blood cell or platelet count, or enlargement of the liver, spleen or many lymph nodes. All you need to do is follow the doctor’s plan for continued exams and blood counts. I have to add that not all patients have as benign a course as the one I have outlined. In some instances, this leukemia progresses rapidly and kills, but that’s not the usual story.

DEAR DR. DONOHUE: My husband, 61, drinks seven to eight beers a day. He lives on antacids. Can you tell me what this is doing to his body? – Anon.

In 12 ounces of beer, the usual volume of a can or bottle, there are 12 grams of alcohol. A man who drinks 60 grams to 80 grams of alcohol a day for 10 years pretty well assures himself of coming down with severe liver disease. Your husband drinks 84 to 96 grams a day. The writing is on the wall. (For a woman, the number of grams that leads to liver destruction is 20 to 40.)

Large amounts of alcohol raise blood pressure. They are linked to cancer of the mouth, esophagus and rectum. They weaken the heart’s pumping power, and they weaken muscles. They injure nerves. They can inflame the pancreas – pancreatitis, a painful and often dangerous illness. They dull the brain’s ability to think clearly.

Alcohol in large amounts irritates the stomach. Perhaps that’s why your husband takes so much antacid. The irritation can lead to stomach bleeding.

Your husband should realize what he’s doing to himself, and he should seek help to stop doing it.

DEAR DR. DONOHUE: My husband is a regular reader of your column. He is a healthy 86-year-old and does not take any medication. He remembers reading something in your column about raising the headboard of the bed, but he misplaced the column and wants to know what the benefits of doing this are. – D.R.

I have suggested to people who have heartburn that they put 6-inch to 8-inch blocks under the bedposts at the head of the bed. Heartburn can bother people when they lie flat. When they’re on an angle, gravity keeps stomach acid in the stomach and out of the esophagus – no heartburn.

DEAR DR. DONOHUE: One of my high-school teachers never passed a water fountain without taking a drink. I asked him why he did this, and he said water flushes germs out of the body. He claimed he never had a cold once he started doing this. Is there any truth to his theory? – B.A.

In a word, no.

People need to replace the fluids they lose from breathing, sweating and urinating, but they don’t need to gorge themselves with water or any other fluids.

Dr. Donohue regrets that he is unable to answer individual letters, but he will incorporate them in his column whenever possible. Readers may write him or request an order form of available health newsletters at P.O. Box 536475, Orlando, FL 32853-6475.

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