What is leukemia?

What is Leukemia?

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.

You may have heard of leukemia referred to as simply “blood cancer,” but it is much more complex than that. It is known to be a disease of children but it also can affect adults. The lifetime risk of developing leukemia is approximately 1.6 percent and the likelihood increases with age. Both men and women are at risk but leukemia is slightly more common in men.

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Types of Leukemia

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

  • Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is typically a rapidly progressing disease of the blood and bone marrow in which an immature myeloid cell develops cancer, leading to an overabundance of abnormal white blood cells called myeloblasts. AML becomes more common as people get older, but it can affect all ages. Although AML is the most common form of leukemia in adults, it is still a rare cancer, making up only 1% of all cancers. Symptoms usually occur quickly once AML develops.
  • Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (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 condition typically develops slowly and most people do not have any symptoms for many years.
  • Chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) is a slowly progressing disease of the blood and bone marrow. CML occurs when too many blood cells become abnormal granulocytes, and do not become healthy white blood cells.
  • Acute lymphocytic (lymphoblastic) leukemia (ALL) is a cancer in which stem cells develop into immature lymphocytes called lymphoblasts. Most people develop symptoms soon after this type of leukemia develops. Although it does occur in adults, it is most common in children.
  • Hairy cell leukemia is 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 causes no symptoms for years.

How Does Leukemia Develop?

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 more slowly than acute.

Leukemia (Blood Cancer) Signs and Symptoms

Some common signs and symptoms of leukemia are:

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

If you have any of these and are concerned, you should talk to your doctor.

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 may be analyzed to see what types of leukemic cells are present.

Your doctor may perform additional tests 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 your age, general health, and symptoms. Each person’s treatment plan is unique to them.

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.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

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