testing blood

What Is Leukemia (Blood Cancer)?

You may have heard it referred to as simply “blood cancer,” but leukemia is more complex than that. This type of cancer affects white blood cells in the body. Some develop slowly, while others present themselves quickly, and treatment depends on the type and stage of the disease.

Leukemia is known to be a disease of children but can also affect adults. The lifetime risk of developing leukemia is approximately 1.5 percent and the likelihood increases with age. Both men and women are at risk but leukemia is slightly more common in men.

Types of Leukemia

There are many types of this blood cancer, each affecting a different kind of white blood cell:

  • Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML): This is typically a rapidly progressive disease in which an immature myeloid cell develops cancer, leading to an overabundance of abnormal white blood cells called myeloblasts. AML becomes more common with increasing age, but can affect people of all ages. Most people develop symptoms shortly after occurs.
  • Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL): CLL occurs most often during or after middle age. In CLL, too many blood stem cells develop into abnormal lymphocytes instead of becoming healthy white blood cells. This conditionally typically develops slowly and many people do not have any symptoms for many years.
  • Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML): As a slowly progressing disease in the blood and bone marrow, CML is when too many blood cells become abnormal granulocytes, and do not become healthy white blood cells.
  • Acute Lymphocytic (Lymphoblastic) Leukemia (ALL): A cancer in which stem cells develop into immature lymphocytes called lymphoblasts. Most people develops symptoms soon after this type of leukemia develops. Although it does occur in adults, it is most common in children.
  • Hairy Cell Leukemia: A rare type of cancer that occurs in the blood and bone marrow. The name refers to how the leukemia cells look under a microscope. This condition typically presents many people have no symptoms for years.

How Does Leukemia Develop?

Leukemia is the abnormal production of white blood cells in the spongy center of the bones called bone marrow. Unlike other cancers, leukemia does not form masses or tumors. Instead, white blood cells grow at a more rapid pace and live longer than normal cells.

The abnormal white blood cells, called leukemic cells, do not fight infections like normal cells would. The overproduction of leukemic cells overcrowds normal cells from growing.

Leukemia develops in the bone marrow and quickly travels to the blood. From there, leukemia can spread to other parts of the body such as the lymph nodes, spleen, liver, central nervous system and other organs.

Leukemia is classified into two categories: acute and chronic. Acute leukemia develops quickly and produces abnormal cells rapidly. In chronic leukemia cases, the abnormal cells are more mature and can still carry out some of their normal functions. Chronic leukemia develops slower than acute.

Leukemia (Blood Cancer) Signs and Symptoms

Some common signs and symptoms of leukemia are listed below. If you have any of these and are concerned, you should always talk to your doctor. Most can be initially diagnosed with a blood test.

  • Bruising easily
  • Feeling tired, weak, or dizzy
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Night sweats

How is Leukemia Diagnosed?

When diagnosing leukemia, your doctor will perform tests to confirm the diagnosis. Tests and exams used to diagnose leukemia commonly include:

  • Physical exam- your doctor will check your lymph nodes, spleen, and liver to see if they are enlarged or swollen.
  • Blood tests– your doctor will look at a sample of your blood to see if you have a high white blood cell count, which can be a sign of leukemia.
  • Bone marrow tests- A sample of your bone marrow can be analyzed to see what types of leukemic cells are present.

Your doctor may perform additional tests in order to determine the type of leukemia or the stage it is in. The results of these tests and exams will determine the course of treatment.

Leukemia Treatment Options

Treatment for blood cancers depends on the type and stage of the disease as well as the patient’s age, general health, and symptoms of leukemia. Each leukemia treatment plan is unique to the patient.

Acute leukemia needs to be treated right away for the best chance of achieving remission. Chronic leukemia requires more long-term treatment plans and more frequent checkups to determine the progression of the disease.

The most common treatment options for both acute and chronic leukemia include:

The Mario Lemieux Center for Blood Cancers offers a multidisciplinary approach to patients with blood cancers. The center provides the latest outpatient treatments, clinical trials, and stem cell therapies.

Learn more about leukemia, other blood cancers, and the Mario Lemieux Center for Blood Cancers online.