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Home Science Diseases & Conditions Leukemia

Leukemia is a cancer of the blood cells. There are several types of leukemia. The type of leukemia depends on how fast it progresses and the type of blood cell it affects. Most often, leukemia is cancer of the white blood cells. Different types of leukemia have different treatment options and outlooks.1

  • Leukemia is a cancer of the blood cells. There are several broad categories of blood cells, including red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. All of these are formed in the bone marrow. Generally, leukemia refers to cancers of the white blood cells. White blood cells help fight infection. With leukemia, abnormal white blood cells are not able to fight infection and reduce the ability of the bone marrow to produce normal cells, including red blood cells and platelets.2

    There are different types of leukemia, which are divided based mainly on whether the leukemia is acute (fast growing) or chronic (slower growing), and whether it starts in myeloid cells or lymphoid cells.3

    There are four major types of leukemia:3

    • Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL)
    • Acute myelogenous leukemia (AML)
    • Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)
    • Chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML)

    Leukemia can affect people of all ages; however, some types of leukemia are more common in adults, while other types are more common in children.1 Leukemia, in general, affects far more adults than children and is most frequently diagnosed in people 65 to 74 years of age.3

  • Leukemia develops when the DNA of a single developing cell in the bone marrow changes (or mutates). This causes the blood cells to grow and divide. Over time, the leukemia cells crowd out or suppress the development of normal cells. Eventually, the cancerous cells outnumber healthy cells in the blood.1,3

    Scientists do not know the cause of most cases of leukemia. There are several factors that may increase a person’s risk for developing leukemia. These include:3

    • Previous cancer treatment with radiation or chemotherapy.
    • Exposure to industrial chemicals (such as benzene).
    • Cigarette smoking (a source of benzene).
    • Having a genetic disorder, such as Down syndrome or Klinefelter syndrome.

    Some people may be diagnosed with leukemia and have none of these risk factors.3

  • Symptoms depend on the type of leukemia. However, some common signs and symptoms include:2

    • Weakness and fatigue
    • Fever, chills, night sweats and other flu-like symptoms
    • Swollen or bleeding gums
    • Headaches
    • Enlarged liver and spleen
    • Swollen tonsils
    • Bone pain
    • Paleness
    • Pinhead-size red spots on the skin
    • Weight loss
  • Your healthcare provider will conduct a physical exam and order tests. During the physical exam, the doctor will look for abnormalities such as enlarged spleen, liver or lymph nodes. Doctors will also use blood tests, biopsies and imaging tests to make a diagnosis.4

  • Treatments for leukemia depend on the type of leukemia you have, your age and overall health, and if the leukemia has spread to other organs or tissues. Treatments may include one or more of the following:5

    • Chemotherapy. Medications given in pill form, administered through the vein or given in shots under the skin (subcutaneously), that kill leukemia cells or stop them from dividing.
    • Radiation. Treatment that uses high energy beams to kill leukemia cells or stop them from growing.
    • Immunotherapy. This treatment (also called biologic therapy) uses certain drugs to boost your body’s own defense system – your immune system – to fight leukemia.
    • Targeted therapy. This treatment uses drugs that block the ability of leukemia cells to multiply and divide, cut off the blood supply needed for the cells to live, or kill the cells directly. Targeted therapy is less likely to harm normal cells.
    • Stem cell or bone marrow transplantation. A procedure in which healthy cells are taken from you (before exposure to chemo or radiation therapy) or from a donor’s blood or bone marrow and are infused back into your blood. Healthy stem cells grow and multiply forming new bone marrow and blood cells that develop into healthy cells.

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