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Leukemia

The Causes, Symptoms, Treatment and Prevention of Leukemia

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Updated July 09, 2009

Leukemia is a disease that affects blood-forming cells in the body. It is a cancerous condition characterized by an abundance of abnormal white blood cells in the body. Leukemia begins in the bone marrow and spreads to other parts of the body. Both children and adults can develop leukemia.

Types of Leukemia

Leukemia can be divided into four different types. It is first classified as acute or chronic.

In chronic leukemia, the leukemia cells come from mature, abnormal cells. The cells thrive for too long and accumulate. These type of cells slowly multiply.

Acute leukemias, on the other hand, develop from early cells, called "blasts," which are young cells that divide frequently. In acute leukemia cells, they don't stop dividing like their normal counterparts do.

Myelogenous vs Lymphocytic
After being classified as acute or chronic, it is then classified by the type of cells in which the leukemia started from. It can either be myelogenous or lymphocytic.

Myelogenous leukemia develops from myeloid cells. The disease can either be chronic or acute, referred to as chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) and acute myelogenous leukemia (AML). There are several types of myelogenous leukemia.

Lymphocytic Leukemia

Lymphocytic leukemia develops from cells called "lymphoblasts" or "lymphocytes" in the blood marrow. The disease can be acute or chronic, referred to as chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) and acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL). There are several types of lymphocytic leukemia.

Causes and Risk Factors of Leukemia


Researchers have identified several causes and risk factors for leukemia. It happens in:
  • people older than the age of 60, but it can occur in younger people
  • people who smoke
  • people who have undergone previous chemotherapy or radiation therapy
  • people infected with the human T-cell leukemia virus, a virus that infects T-cells that is spread by sharing syringes and used to inject drugs; through blood transfusions; through sexual contact; and from mother to child at birth or through breastfeeding
  • people with myelodysplasctic syndrome, a blood disorder
  • people with Down syndrome

Symptoms of Leukemia

Leukemia symptoms can occur all of a sudden or gradually. The symptoms are broad, but there are specific signs of leukemia to keep an eye out for:

  • fever
  • infection
  • excessive bruising
  • fatigue
  • physical exercise intolerance
  • abdominal pain, or generally feeling fullness
  • weight loss
  • abnormal bleeding
  • enlargement of the lymph nodes, spleen and/or liver
  • weakness

Diagnosing Leukemia

A doctor may suspect you have leukemia after completing a physical or if you report experiencing the symptoms of leukemia. There are instances where leukemia is suspected from results of blood tests performed for other reasons. There are several tests a doctor may use to diagnose leukemia, ranging from blood tests to spinal taps.

Physical Exam. During a physical exam, a doctor may look for lumps, other abnormalities or symptoms of leukemia. A thorough medical history will be taken and the patient can report a history of leukemia or any symptoms or risk factors.

Blood Tests. Blood tests, such as complete blood count (CBC) can detect leukemia. A CBC determines the number of red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. It also can count the number of red blood cells that make up the blood sample and the amount of hemoglobin in the blood. Other blood tests that may be used to diagnose leukemia include:

  • peripheral blood smear - determines the presence of blast cells and reveals the type and quantity of white blood cells
  • cytogenic analysis - is a blood test in which a sample of blood is examined to check for changes in the chromosomes of the lymphocytes
  • other various blood tests - other blood tests may be ordered to see how organs are functioning and if they are being affected by leukemia


Biopsy. A biopsy is a procedure in which a sample of cells are removed from the body to be examined for cancer. Bone marrow biopsy is used to diagnose leukemia. A large bore needle is inserted in to the hip or, rarely, the breast bone and a sample of the bone is removed and bone marrow is then aspirated. The material is then examined by a pathologist. A lymph node biopsy may also be performed depending on the type of leukemia suspected.

Lumbar Puncture/Spinal Tap. A lumbar puncture or spinal tap may be done to diagnose leukemia. Under an anesthetic, a small amount of spinal fluid is removed from the spaces between the vertebrae in the spine. The fluid is then examined by a pathologist.

Leukemia Treatment

Treatment for leukemia varies greatly depending on the type of leukemia and stage of the disease. Many times, leukemia is treated with one or more types of treatment.

Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is the use of drugs that either kill cancer cells or prevent the cells from dividing. Chemotherapy can be given in a variety of ways, with IV infusion and pill being more common. The type of chemotherapy given depends on the stage and type of cancer.

Radiation Therapy. Radiation therapy is the use of certain types of energy to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. This energy can be waves or particles like protons, electrons, x-rays and gamma rays.

Biologic Therapy. Biologic therapy is treatment that uses the knowledge specific to the cancer to eliminate it. Substances made by the body or made in a laboratory are used to boost, direct or restore the body's natural defenses against cancer or to specifically shut down its division.

Surgery. Surgical removal of the spleen is also a treatment option for chronic leukemia. The spleen collects leukemia cells, and they accumulate, causing the spleen to enlarge. An enlarged spleen can cause many complications.

Hematopoietic Cells or Bone Marrow Transplant. A hematopoietic transplant is a procedure to replace normal marrow production that has been destroyed by treatment with high doses of anticancer drugs or radiation. Transplantation may be autologous (an individual's own stem cells saved before treatment), allogeneic (stem cells donated by someone else) or syngeneic (stem cells donated by an identical twin).
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