Topic updated: October 2012

Leukemia

Leukemia is cancer that starts in the tissue that forms blood. To understand cancer, it helps to know how normal blood cells form.

Normal Blood Cells

Most blood cells develop from cells in the bone marrow called stem cells. Bone marrow is the soft material in the center of most bones.

Stem cells mature into different kinds of blood cells. Each kind has a special job

  • White blood cells help fight infection. There are several types of white blood cells.
  • Red blood cells carry oxygen to tissues throughout the body.
  • Platelets help form blood clots that control bleeding.

White blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets are made from stem cells as the body needs them. When cells grow old or get damaged, they die, and new cells take their place.

First, a stem cell matures into either a myeloid stem cell or a lymphoid stem cell:

  • A myeloid stem cell matures into a myeloid blast. The blast can form a red blood cell, platelets, or one of several types of white blood cells.
  • A lymphoid stem cell matures into a lymphoid blast. The blast can form one of several types of white blood cells, such as B cells or T cells.

The white blood cells that form from myeloid blasts are different from the white blood cells that form from lymphoid blasts.

Most blood cells mature in the bone marrow and then move into the blood vessels. Blood flowing through the blood vessels and heart is called the peripheral blood.

Leukemia Cells

In a person with leukemia, the bone marrow makes abnormal white blood cells. The abnormal cells are leukemia cells.

Unlike normal blood cells, leukemia cells don't die when they should. They may crowd out normal white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. This makes it hard for normal blood cells to do their work.

Types of Leukemia

The types of leukemia can be grouped based on how quickly the disease develops and gets worse. Leukemia is either chronic (which usually gets worse slowly) or acute (which usually gets worse quickly):

  • Chronic leukemia: Early in the disease, the leukemia cells can still do some of the work of normal white blood cells. People may not have any symptoms at first. Doctors often find chronic leukemia during a routine checkup - before there are any symptoms.

    Slowly, chronic leukemia gets worse. As the number of leukemia cells in the blood increases, people get symptoms, such as swollen lymph nodes or infections. When symptoms do appear, they are usually mild at first and get worse gradually.

  • Acute leukemia: The leukemia cells can't do any of the work of normal white blood cells. The number of leukemia cells increases rapidly. Acute leukemia usually worsens quickly.

The types of leukemia also can be grouped based on the type of white blood cell that is affected. Leukemia can start in lymphoid cells or myeloid cells. Leukemia that affects lymphoid cells is called lymphoid, lymphocytic, or lymphoblastic leukemia. Leukemia that affects myeloid cells is called myeloid, myelogenous, or myeloblastic leukemia.

There are four common types of leukemia:

  • Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL): CLL affects lymphoid cells and usually grows slowly. It accounts for more than 15,000 new cases of leukemia each year. Most often, people diagnosed with the disease are over age 55. It almost never affects children.
  • Chronic myeloid leukemia (CML): CML affects myeloid cells and usually grows slowly at first. It accounts for nearly 5,000 new cases of leukemia each year. It mainly affects adults.
  • Acute lymphocytic (lymphoblastic) leukemia (ALL): ALL affects lymphoid cells and grows quickly. It accounts for more than 5,000 new cases of leukemia each year. ALL is the most common type of leukemia in young children. It also affects adults.
  • Acute myeloid leukemia (AML): AML affects myeloid cells and grows quickly. It accounts for more than 13,000 new cases of leukemia each year. It occurs in both adults and children.

Hairy cell leukemia is a rare type of chronic leukemia. This booklet is not about hairy cell leukemia or other rare types of leukemia. Together, these rare leukemias account for fewer than 6,000 new cases of leukemia each year. The Cancer Information Service (1-800-4-CANCER) can provide information about rare types of leukemia.

Risk Factors

When you're told that you have cancer, it's natural to wonder what may have caused the disease. No one knows the exact causes of leukemia. Doctors seldom know why one person gets leukemia and another doesn't. However, research shows that certain risk factors increase the chance that a person will get this disease.

The risk factors may be different for the different types of leukemia:

  • Radiation: People exposed to very high levels of radiation are much more likely than others to get acute myeloid leukemia, chronic myeloid leukemia, or acute lymphocytic leukemia.
    • Atomic bomb explosions: Very high levels of radiation have been caused by atomic bomb explosions (such as those in Japan during World War II). People, especially children, who survive atomic bomb explosions are at increased risk of leukemia.
    • Radiation therapy: Another source of exposure to high levels of radiation is medical treatment for cancer and other conditions. Radiation therapy can increase the risk of leukemia.
    • Diagnostic x-rays: Dental x-rays and other diagnostic x-rays (such as CT scans) expose people to much lower levels of radiation. It's not known yet whether this low level of radiation to children or adults is linked to leukemia. Researchers are studying whether having many x-rays may increase the risk of leukemia. They are also studying whether CT scans during childhood are linked with increased risk of developing leukemia.

  • Smoking: Smoking cigarettes increases the risk of acute myeloid leukemia.
  • Benzene: Exposure to benzene in the workplace can cause acute myeloid leukemia. It may also cause chronic myeloid leukemia or acute lymphocytic leukemia. Benzene is used widely in the chemical industry. It's also found in cigarette smoke and gasoline.
  • Chemotherapy: Cancer patients treated with certain types of cancer-fighting drugs sometimes later get acute myeloid leukemia or acute lymphocytic leukemia. For example, being treated with drugs known as alkylating agents or topoisomerase inhibitors is linked with a small chance of later developing acute leukemia.
  • Down syndrome and certain other inherited diseases: Down syndrome and certain other inherited diseases increase the risk of developing acute leukemia.
  • Myelodysplastic syndrome and certain other blood disorders: People with certain blood disorders are at increased risk of acute myeloid leukemia.
  • Human T-cell leukemia virus type I (HTLV-I): People with HTLV-I infection are at increased risk of a rare type of leukemia known as adult T-cell leukemia. Although the HTLV-I virus may cause this rare disease, adult T-cell leukemia and other types of leukemia are not contagious.
  • Family history of leukemia: It's rare for more than one person in a family to have leukemia. When it does happen, it's most likely to involve chronic lymphocytic leukemia. However, only a few people with chronic lymphocytic leukemia have a father, mother, brother, sister, or child who also has the disease.

Having one or more risk factors does not mean that a person will get leukemia. Most people who have risk factors never develop the disease.

Symptoms

Like all blood cells, leukemia cells travel through the body. The symptoms of leukemia depend on the number of leukemia cells and where these cells collect in the body.

People with chronic leukemia may not have symptoms. The doctor may find the disease during a routine blood test.

People with acute leukemia usually go to their doctor because they feel sick. If the brain is affected, they may have headaches, vomiting, confusion, loss of muscle control, or seizures. Leukemia also can affect other parts of the body such as the digestive tract, kidneys, lungs, heart, or testes.

Common symptoms of chronic or acute leukemia may include:

  • Swollen lymph nodes that usually don't hurt (especially lymph nodes in the neck or armpit)
  • Fevers or night sweats
  • Frequent infections
  • Feeling weak or tired
  • Bleeding and bruising easily (bleeding gums, purplish patches in the skin, or tiny red spots under the skin)
  • Swelling or discomfort in the abdomen (from a swollen spleen or liver)
  • Weight loss for no known reason
  • Pain in the bones or joints

Most often, these symptoms are not due to cancer. An infection or other health problems may also cause these symptoms. Only a doctor can tell for sure.

Anyone with these symptoms should tell the doctor so that problems can be diagnosed and treated as early as possible.

Read the rest of this great article, including diagnosis and treatment information, at the National Cancer Institute.

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