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A graphical image showing the comparison between normal blood and blood with leukemia.

Leukemia is malignant cancer of the blood cells and blood forming tissues including the bone marrow and lymphatic system. An important part of the body’s immune system is the production of white blood cells (leukocytes) where most cancer starts. The white blood cells help to protect against bacteria and viruses, and fight off other harmful germs, but when these cells multiply too rapidly they crowd normal, healthy red blood cells that carry oxygen throughout the body and platelets which help to clot the blood. It is possible however for cancers to develop in other blood cell types. 

The different types of leukemia are named after the specific blood cells that are affected. Lymphoid cells are white blood cells most often found in lymphoid tissues (lymph nodes, spleen and tonsils) Some types are more common in children and others are primarily found in adults. Some are acute (faster growing) while others are considered to be chronic (slower growth).

Acute leukemias include:

  • Acute myelogenous leukemia (AML)

  • Acute lymphocytic (or lymphoblastic) leukemia (ALL)

  • Acute eosinophilic leukemia (rare form of leukemia)

Chronic leukemias include:

  • Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)

  • Chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML)

  • Chronic myelomonocytic leukemia(CMML)

  • Hairy cell leukemia (rare form of leukemia)

Risk Factors

Some risk factors for leukemia include:

Exposure: A person who has been exposed to high levels of radiation, such as fallout from an atomic weapon or nuclear plant failure are at a higher risk. In addition, long-term exposure to benzene, a chemical solvent, can be at an increased risk of a form of leukemia. Individuals exposed to Agent Orange; the herbicidal agent used as chemical warfare in the Vietnam war are at increased risk as well.

Smoking: The cancer-causing chemicals in cigarettes can increase a person’s risk for some forms of leukemia.

Family history: A person that has a first degree relative (parent, sibling or child) may be at a higher risk of developing a type of leukemia, but most people who are diagnosed don’t have a family history.

Medical history: People who have a blood abnormality called myeloplastic syndrome may develop leukemia. People who have certain genetic syndromes are also at a slightly higher risk.

Signs & Symptoms:

Signs and symptoms differ between people and although many of them are common with more than one type of leukemia, there are differences with each. It is best to talk with your oncologist about the signs and symptoms you may experience with the type of leukemia you have been diagnosed with.

Diagnostic Testing:

Some of the diagnostic procedures used when leukemia is suspected are listed below. It will depend on the type of leukemia as to which of these tests your oncologist will order to make a definitive diagnosis:

  • Blood tests

  • Tissue biopsy (skin or lymph nodes)

  • Bone marrow biopsy

  • Molecular testing

  • Genomic testing

  • Imaging: CT Scan, PET-CT

Helpful Patient Resources:

We understand that receiving a cancer diagnosis can be a very scary and it is an emotional time for the patient and their families. It is very important to discuss any questions or concerns you may have with your oncologist. We highly recommend that if you do any research about your disease, that you do so only with reputable sources. For your convenience, we’ve listed some below.

National Cancer Institute

Leukemia - Patient Version

Adult Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia

Adult Acute Myeloid Leukemia

Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia

Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia

Hairy Cell Leukemia

American Cancer Society