Top of the page
Leukemia is cancer of the blood cells. It starts in the bone marrow, the soft tissue inside most bones. Bone marrow is where blood cells are made.
When you have leukemia, the bone marrow starts to make a lot of abnormal white blood cells, called leukemia cells. They don't do the work of normal white blood cells. They grow faster than normal cells, and they don't stop growing when they should.
Over time, leukemia cells can crowd out the normal blood cells. This can lead to serious problems such as anemia, bleeding, and infections. Leukemia cells can also spread to the lymph nodes or other organs and cause swelling or pain.
There are several different types of leukemia. In general, leukemia is grouped by how fast it gets worse and what kind of white blood cell it affects.
There are less common leukemias, such as hairy cell leukemia. There are also subtypes of leukemia, such as acute promyelocytic leukemia (a subtype of AML).
Experts don't know what causes leukemia in most people. But they think that most leukemia happens because of things in the environment and in a person's genes.
Some things may increase the risk, such as having certain genetic conditions or being exposed to large amounts of radiation or certain chemicals.
Symptoms of acute leukemia depend on how much the cancer has grown. They may include:
The chronic forms of leukemia often cause no symptoms until much later in the disease. And when symptoms appear, they usually appear gradually.
The doctor will ask about your past health and family history. Your doctor will do a physical examination and order blood tests. Imaging tests may be done. A bone marrow aspiration and biopsy will likely be done. Depending on the results, more tests may be needed to learn more about the type of leukemia.
Treatment for leukemia is based on the type of leukemia, whether it has spread, and other things such as your overall health. Treatment options may include:
Other medicines may be given to help chemotherapy work better and prevent infection or bleeding. Examples include steroids and antibiotics.
This uses high-dose X-rays to destroy cancer cells and shrink tumours.
Sometimes a clinical trial may be a good choice.
Your doctor will talk with you about your options and then make a treatment plan.
Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.
Current as of: March 1, 2023
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal MedicineKathleen Romito MD - Family MedicineBrian Leber MDCM, FRCPC - Hematology
Current as of: March 1, 2023
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine & Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine & Brian Leber MDCM, FRCPC - Hematology
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
© 1995-2023 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.