Leukemia: The Basics

OncoLink Team
Last Reviewed: March 6, 2017

Leukemia is a cancer of the blood or blood cells. They are classified by two factors:

  • How quickly the leukemia develops, called either acute (developing quickly) or chronic (developing more slowly).
  • What type of white blood cells are affected (either lymphoid or myeloid).

The types of leukemia include:

  • Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML)
  • Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL)
  • Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML)
  • Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL)

Risk Factors

Several things have been identified as risk factors:

  • Exposure to high-energy radiation
  • Genetic Syndromes, such as Down’s syndrome
  • Exposure to the chemical benzene (through work exposure or smoking)
  • Prior treatment with certain chemotherapies
  • History of blood disorders such as MDS

Screening

Currently there are no screening tests for leukemia.

Signs & Symptoms of Leukemia

When leukemia develops, your white blood cells are unable to perform their primary job fighting infections. Therefore, a symptom of leukemia is fever and infection that doesn’t go away with treatment. If the number of immature white blood cells (called blasts) is very high, the number of red blood cells (anemia) and platelets (thrombocytopenia) in your body can be low because there is no space for them. This can lead to feeling tired, appearing pale, and bruising easily.

Other common symptoms include:

  • Chills
  • Swollen or tender lymph nodes, liver, and/or spleen
  • Night sweats
  • Weight loss
  • Bone or joint pain

In acute leukemia, the blasts can build up in the brain or spinal cord which can lead to:

  • Headaches
  • Vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Seizures

Diagnosis of Leukemia

Your provider will ask you about your medical history and perform a complete physical exam. A blood test called a complete blood count will be done to see if there are blasts in your blood. To determine the type of leukemia, a sample of bone marrow needs to be taken through a procedure called a bone marrow biopsy.

Treatment

There are a number of different therapies used to treat leukemia. Your treatment plan will be determined by the type of leukemia you have. In general the therapies used to treat leukemia include:

  • Chemotherapy
  • Targeted Therapies
  • Monoclonal Antibodies
  • Stem Cell Transplant
  • Radiation
  • Supportive Care

The goal of any of these treatments is to kill all of the cancer cells and to put the patient into remission. 

This article is a basic guide to leukemia. You can learn more about your type of leukemia and treatment by using the links below.

All About Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL)

All About Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML)

All About Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL)

All About Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (AML)

Keywords

Click on any of these terms for more related articles

A
B
C
D
E
F
G
H
I
J
K
L
M
N
O
P
R
S
T
U
V
X
Y
Z
#
 
A
B
C
E
G
H
K
L
M
N
O
P
R
S
T
U
 
 
 
 
Stay informed with the latest information from OncoLink!   Subscribe to OncoLink eNews
View our newsletter archives