What Is Leukemia?
Leukemia is a cancer of the blood cells. There are several broad
categories of blood cells, including red blood cells (RBCs), white blood cells
(WBCs), and platelets. Generally, leukemia refers to cancers of the WBCs.
WBCs are a vital part of your immune system. They protect your
body from invasion by bacteria, viruses, and fungi, as well as from abnormal
cells and other foreign substances. In leukemia, the WBCs don’t function like
normal WBCs. They can also divide too quickly and eventually crowd out normal
WBCs are mostly produced in the bone marrow, but certain types of
WBCs are also made in the lymph nodes, spleen, and thymus gland. Once formed, WBCs
circulate throughout your body in your blood and lymph, concentrating in the
lymph nodes and spleen.
The Types of
The onset of leukemia can be acute (sudden onset) or chronic
(slow onset). In acute leukemia, cancer cells multiply quickly. In chronic
leukemia, the disease progresses slowly and early symptoms may be very mild.
Leukemia is also classified according to the type of cell.
Leukemia involving myeloid cells is called myelogenous leukemia. Myeloid cells
are immature blood cells that would normally become granulocytes or monocytes.
Leukemia involving lymphocytes is called lymphocytic leukemia. There are four
main types of leukemia:
Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (AML)
Acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) can occur in children and
adults. According to National
Cancer Institute (NCI), about 21,000 new cases of AML are diagnosed
annually in the United States. This is the most common form of leukemia.
Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL)
Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) occurs mostly in children. About
6,000 new cases
of ALL are diagnosed annually.
Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML)
Chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) affects mostly adults. About 7,000 new cases of
CML are diagnosed annually.
Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL)
Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) is most likely to affect
the age of 55. It’s very rarely seen in children. About 15,000 new cases of
CLL are diagnosed annually.
Hairy cell leukemia is
a very rare subtype of CLL. Its name comes from the appearance of the cancerous
lymphocytes under a microscope.
Risk Factors for
The causes of leukemia are not known. However, several factors
have been identified which may increase your risk. These include:
- a family history of leukemia
- smoking, which increases your risk of developing
- genetic disorders such as Down syndrome
- blood disorders, such as myelodysplastic
syndrome, which sometimes called “preleukemia”
- previous treatment for cancer with chemotherapy
- exposure to high levels of radiation
- exposure to chemicals such as benzene
What Are the
Symptoms of Leukemia?
The symptoms of leukemia include:
- excessive sweating, especially at night (called
- fatigue and weakness that don’t go away with
- unintentional weight loss
- bone pain and tenderness
- painless, swollen lymph nodes (especially in the
neck and armpits)
- enlargement of the liver or spleen
- red spots on the skin, called petechiae
- bleeding and bruising easily
- fever or chills
- frequent infections
Leukemia can also cause symptoms in organs that have been
infiltrated or affected by the cancer cells. For example, if the cancer spreads
to the central nervous system, it can cause headaches, nausea and vomiting,
confusion, loss of muscle control, and seizures.
Leukemia can also spread to other parts of your body, including:
- the lungs
- gastrointestinal tract
Leukemia may be suspected if you have certain risk factors, or
concerning symptoms. Your doctor will begin with a complete history and
physical examination, but leukemia can’t be fully diagnosed by physical exam.
Instead, doctors will use blood tests, biopsies, and imaging studies to diagnose
There are a number of different tests that can be used to
diagnose leukemia. A complete blood count determines the numbers of RBCs, WBCs,
and platelets in the blood. Looking at your blood under a microscope can also
determine if the cells have an abnormal appearance.
Tissue biopsies can
be taken from the bone marrow or lymph nodes to look for evidence of leukemia.
These small samples can identify the type of leukemia and its growth rate.
Biopsies of other organs such as the liver and spleen can show if the cancer
Once leukemia is diagnosed, it will be staged. Staging helps your
doctor determine your prognosis. AML and ALL are staged based on how cancer
cells look under the microscope and the type of cell involved. ALL and CLL are
staged based on the WBC count at the time of diagnosis. The presence of
immature white blood cells, or myeloblasts, in the blood and bone marrow is
also used to stage AML and CML.
Assessing the Progression
A number of other tests can be run to assess the progression of
the disease, including:
- Flow cytometry examines
the DNA of the cancer cells and determines their growth rate.
- Liver function
tests show whether leukemia cells are affecting or invading the
puncture is performed by inserting a thin needle between the
vertebrae of your lower back. This allows your doctor to collect spinal fluid
and determine if cancer has spread to the central nervous system.
- Imaging studies, such as X-rays, ultrasounds,
and CT scans, help doctors look for any damage to other organs that’s
caused by the leukemia.
Leukemia is usually treated by a hematologist-oncologist. These
are doctors who specialize in blood disorders and cancer. The treatment depends
on the type and stage of the cancer. Some forms of leukemia grow slowly and
don’t need immediate treatment. However, treatment for leukemia usually
involves one or more of the following:
- Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill leukemia cells.
Depending on the type of leukemia, you may take either a single drug or a
combination of different drugs.
therapy uses high-energy radiation to damage leukemia cells and inhibit
their growth. Radiation can be applied to a specific area or to your entire
- Stem cell transplantation replaces diseased bone
marrow with healthy bone marrow, either your own (autologous transplantation)
or from a donor (allologous transplantation). This procedure is also called a
bone marrow transplant.
- Biological or immune therapy uses treatments
that help your immune system recognize and attack cancer cells.
- Targeted therapy uses medications that take
advantage of vulnerabilities in cancer cells. For example, imatinib (Gleevec)
is a targeted drug that is commonly used against CML.
The long-term outlook and prognosis for people who have leukemia
depends on the type of the cancer they have and their stage at diagnosis. The
sooner leukemia is diagnosed and the faster it’s treated, the better the chance
of recovery. Some factors, like older age, past history of blood disorders, and
chromosome mutations, can negatively affect your prognosis.
According to the NCI, the
overall mortality rate for leukemia has been falling about 1 percent each year
for the past decade. From 2005 to 2011, the five-year survival rate for
leukemia patients was 58.5
percent. However, it’s important to note that this figure includes people of
all ages and with all forms of leukemia. It’s not predictive of the outcome for
any one person. Work with your medical team to treat leukemia, and remember
that each person’s situation is different.