According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), each year nearly 27,000 adults and more than 2,000 children in the United States learn that they have leukemia. Leukemia is cancer of the blood cells. The blood is made up of fluid called plasma and three types of cells with respective functions, including:

  • White blood cells (also called WBCs or leukocytes) help the body fight infections and other diseases.
  • Red blood cells (also called RBCs or erythrocytes) carry oxygen from the lungs to the body’s tissues and take carbon dioxide from the tissues back to the lungs. The red blood cells give blood its color.
  • Platelets (also called thrombocytes) help form blood clots that control bleeding.

Blood cells are formed in the bone marrow, the soft, spongy center of bones. New (immature) blood cells are called blasts. Some blasts stay in the marrow to mature. Some travel to other parts of the body to mature.

Normally, blood cells are produced in an orderly, controlled way, as the body needs them. When leukemia develops, the body produces large numbers of abnormal blood cells. In most types of leukemia, the abnormal cells are white blood cells.

Types of Leukemia

There are several types of leukemia that are grouped in two ways: how quickly the disease develops and by the type of blood cell that is affected.

Leukemia is either acute or chronic. In acute leukemia, the abnormal blood cells are blasts that remain very immature and cannot carry out their normal functions. In chronic leukemia, some blast cells are present, but in general, these cells are more mature and can carry out some of their normal functions.

Leukemia can arise in either of the two main types of white blood cells — lymphoid cells or myeloid cells. When leukemia affects lymphoid cells, it is called lymphocytic leukemia. When myeloid cells are affected, the disease is called myeloid or myelogenous leukemia.

The most common types of leukemia are:

  • Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL). ALL is the most common type of leukemia in young children. This disease also affects adults, especially those age 65 and older.More information about Childhood ALL
  • Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML). AML occurs in adults and children. This type of leukemia is sometimes called acute nonlymphocytic leukemia (ANLL). More information about Childhood AML
  • Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL). CLL most often affects adults over the age of 55. Sometimes it occurs in younger adults, but it almost never affects children.
  • Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML). CML occurs mainly in adults. A very small number of children also develop this disease.
  • Hairy Cell Leukemia. This is an uncommon form of leukemia. Hairy cell leukemia is a chronic leukemia in which the abnormal white blood cells appear to be covered with tiny hairs when viewed under a microscope.

Risk Factors of Leukemia

The causes of leukemia are not well known, but evidence suggests that these risk factors may increase your risk for developing this disease:

  • Sex. Leukemia occurs in men more often than in women.
  • Race. White people have an increased risk for developing leukemia than black people.
  • Exposure to radiation. Exposure to large amounts of high-energy radiation increases the risk of getting leukemia. Such radiation was produced by the atomic bomb explosions in Japan during World War II and in nuclear power plants.
  • Electromagnetic fields. Exposure to electromagnetic fields, low-energy radiation that comes from power lines and electric appliances, is a possible risk factor for leukemia.
  • Genetic conditions. Genetic conditions, like Down’s syndrome, can increase the chance of developing leukemia. Children born with Down’s syndrome are more likely to develop leukemia than other children.
  • Chemicals. Workers who are exposed to certain chemicals, such as benzene, are at an increased risk for developing leukemia.

Common Symptoms of Leukemia

These are the common symptoms of leukemia:

  • Fever, chills, and other flu-like symptoms
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Frequent infections
  • Loss of appetite and/or weight
  • Swollen or tender lymph nodes, liver, or spleen
  • Easy bleeding or bruising
  • Tiny red spots (called petechiae) under the skin
  • Swollen or bleeding gums
  • Sweating, especially at night
  • Bone or joint pain

In acute leukemia, the abnormal cells may collect in the brain or spinal cord (also called the central nervous system or CNS). The result may be:

  • Headaches
  • Vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Loss of muscle control
  • Seizures

Chronic leukemia may affect the:

  • Central nervous system
  • Digestive tract
  • Kidneys
  • Testicles

Also, some patients develop sores in the eyes or on the skin.

Diagnosing Leukemia

If a patient is experiencing symptoms of leukemia, a doctor will perform a physical exam, checking for swelling in the liver, spleen, and in the lymph nodes under the arms, in the groin, and in the neck. If the doctor detects any abnormality, he/she will then perform further tests to find the cause of the symptoms. Tests may include:

Treatment Options for Leukemia

Treatment for leukemia is complex. It varies with each type of leukemia and it depends not only on the type of leukemia, but also on certain factors of the cells, including the stage of the disease, the patient’s age, whether the leukemia has been treated before and the general health of the patient.

Below are the most common treatment options for leukemia.

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Radiation TherapyRadiation Oncology
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Additional Resources

Find out about our clinical trials for:


Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia

Acute Myeloid Leukemia

Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia

Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia

Hairy Cell Leukemia

National cancer clinical trials

Our Specialists

Gordon Phillips II, M.D.

Jane Liesveld, M.D.

Jainulabdeen J. Ifthikharuddin, M.D.

Michael W. Becker, M.D.

Steven H. Bernstein, M.D.

Jonathan W. Freidberg, M.D.

Deborah Mulford, M.D.

Radiation Oncologist

Louis “Sandy” Constine, M.D.

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