Leukemia is a blood cell cancer involving abnormal production of white blood cells. White and red blood cells, and platelets, all form in the bone marrow, which is the soft, spongy part inside your bones. With leukemia, the white blood cells, whose purpose is to fight infection, begin to grow out of control and crowd out the normal blood cells. The disease can be acute, meaning it moves very quickly, or it can be chronic, or slow-growing. With either type, leukemic cells can spread to other parts of the body and can be fatal if left untreated.
There are four main types of leukemia:
- Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) – Also called acute lymphocytic leukemia, this is an aggressive (fast-growing) cancer that begins in the lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell. ALL requires equally aggressive and immediate treatment.
- Acute myelocytic leukemia (AML) – Also referred to as acute myeloid leukemia, this is also an aggressive cancer that forms in the myelocytes, another type of white blood cell. AML is the most common type of acute leukemia in adults.
- Chronic lymphoblastic leukemia (CLL) – Also called chronic lymphocytic leukemia, this type of cancer moves slowly with abnormal cells building up over time. A person with CLL may not have symptoms for several years.
- Chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) – Also referred to as chronic myelogenous leukemia, this abnormal cell behavior begins in the myeloid cells. CML is a more rare form of leukemia that moves slowly but can begin to spread quickly and move to other parts of the body.
Risk factors for leukemia
Although there is no definite cause of leukemia, certain people may be more at risk for this type of cancer, including those who have:
- Had previous cancer treatment (chemotherapy and radiation exposure)
- Certain genetic disorders, such as Down syndrome
- Family history of leukemia
- History of smoking
- Exposure to certain chemicals, such as benzene (e.g., from petroleum products, plastics, paints and glues)
Symptoms and diagnosis of leukemia
Depending on the type of leukemia, you may experience immediate symptoms or your symptoms may not show up for several years. People with leukemia may experience:
- Bone pain
- Easy bleeding (nosebleeds, gums, rectum, menstrual)
- Night sweats
- Swollen glands in neck, underarm, groin
In order to diagnose leukemia, your doctor will perform a physical exam and review of your medical history. A blood test may reveal abnormal amounts of white blood cells compared to other blood cell types. Additional testing may include bone marrow biopsy to examine the cells inside your bones.
Treatment options for leukemia depend on your age, overall health, and the type of leukemia you have. This type of cancer is commonly treated with a combination of chemotherapy, radiation therapy, stem cell transplant and targeted therapy, which pinpoints specific cancer cells and produces fewer side effects.