What is Leukemia?

Leukemia is cancer of the body’s blood-forming tissues, which includes the bone marrow and lymphatic system. There are several types of leukemia in existence, some of which are specifically most common in either children or in adults. 

Leukemia typically starts in the white blood cells, which are the infection-fighting cells. Red blood cells carry oxygen to the tissues throughout the body, and platelets help form blood clots that control bleeding. White blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets are all made from stem cells as the body needs them. Most blood cells mature in the bone marrow and then move into the blood vessels to travel through the body. When the cells grow old or get damaged, they die, and new cells will take their place.

With leukemia, the bone marrow produces a large number of abnormal white blood cells that are malfunctioning. These abnormal cells don’t die when they should, and this causes crowding which prevents normal cells from doing their work. 

It is estimated that in 2011, there were 44,600 new cases of leukemia, and 21,780 deaths attributed to leukemia in the US

Causes of Leukemia:

The exact cause of leukemia is currently unknown. However, there are some risk factors that may contribute. As with most cancers, smoking is considered a high risk factor. Long-term exposure to chemicals, such as benzene or formaldehyde, typically in the workplace, is considered a risk factor. Prolonged exposure to radiation accounts for relatively few cases of leukemia, but is still counted as a risk. 

Previous chemotherapy used to treat cancer is linked to the development of leukemia, and human T-cell leukemia virus (HTLV-1) is an infection that causes the disease. Myelodyplastic syndrome is a group of blood disorders that can contribute to developing leukemia as well. Some doctors believe that Down Syndrome and other genetic diseases caused by abnormal chromosomes may increase the risk for leukemia. 

Having a first-degree family member with chronic lymphocytic leukemia increases the risk of developing the disease by 4 times that of someone without an affected relative. 

Types of Leukemia:

Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) is the most common type of cancer in children ages 1 to 7, and there are several subtypes. ALL affects the blood cells and immune system and progresses rapidly if not treated. Most children with ALL are cured of the disease after treatment. ALL is also seen in adults, but less common than in children. 

Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) is a cancer of the bone marrow and the blood which spreads rapidly without treatment. AML primarily affects cells that aren’t fully developed yet, as these cells can’t carry out their normal functions. 

Chronic Myeloid Leukemia (CML) is another cancer of the bone marrow and blood. It is usually diagnosed in its chronic phase, which is when treatment is most effective for the majority of patients. Most CML patients are treated with daily oral drug therapy. Other names for CML include chronic myelogenous leukemia, chronic granulocytic leukemia, and chronic myelocytic leukemia. 

Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL) is the most common type of adult leukemia, and it begins in the bone marrow. The pace in which CLL spreads varies by patient, but there are a number of treatments available. 

Hairy Cell Leukemia is a type of CLL, and is a curable disease for most patients. It is a slow-growing blood cancer that begins in the bone marrow.

Chronic Myelomonocytic Leukemia (CMML) is an uncommon blood cancer, and patients diagnosed are between ages 65 and 75 years on average. CMML is a blood cancer that has features of two other types of blood cancers, which is why it is classified as a mixed myelodysplastic/myeloproliferative disease. 

Juvenile Myelomonocytic Leukemia (JMML) is an uncommon blood cancer diagnosed in infants and children younger than 6 years old. JMML can progress quickly without treatment, and has features of two other blood cancers. It is classified as a mixed myelodysplastic/myeloproliferative disease. JMML is also called juvenile chronic myelogenous leukemia, chronic granulocytic leukemia, chronic and subacute myelomonocytic leukemia, and infant monosomy 7 syndrome. 

Symptoms of Leukemia:

The symptoms of leukemia will vary depending on the type and the degree in which it has spread. The common symptoms include, but are not limited to:

Frequent infections

Weight loss without trying

Fever or chills

Recurrent fatigue, weakness

Easy bruising or bleeding

Swollen lymph nodes, enlarged spleen or liver

Excessive sweating, especially night sweats

Bone pain and tenderness

Petechiae (tiny red dots in the skin)

Diagnosis of Leukemia:

The symptoms of leukemia are often vague and non-specific, and therefore are often overlooked for some time. If symptoms persist, or you have concerns, you should make an appointment with your doctor. 

Doctors often diagnose chronic leukemia through a routine blood test before symptoms may even begin. If this occurs, you may undergo a physical exam to look for signs such as pale skin or anemia, blood tests to look for abnormal white blood cells, or a bone marrow test. Certain types of leukemia are classified into stages to indicate the severity of the disease. The stage of leukemia helps the doctor to determine a proper treatment plan. 

Treatment of Leukemia:

Treatment of leukemia will depend on the type of disease as well as the stage in which it has spread. Common treatments include:

Chemotherapy - the primary form of treatment for leukemia, this drug uses chemicals to kill the abnormal white blood cells. These drugs may come in pill form, or may be injected directly into a vein.

Biological therapy - works by helping the immune system recognize and attack the leukemia cells.

Radiation therapy - utilizes x-rays or other high-energy beams to damage leukemia cells to stop their growth. During radiation therapy you will lie on a table while a large machine moves around the body directing the radiation to precise points on the body. 

Targeted therapy - uses drugs to attack specific vulnerabilities within the cancer cells, such as stopping the action of proteins within the leukemia cells. 

Stem cell transplant - is a procedure to replace the diseased bone marrow with healthy bone marrow. Before stem cell replacement can occur, a patient will receive chemotherapy or radiation to destroy the diseased bone marrow. Following that, the patient will receive an infusion of the blood-forming stem cells to help rebuild the bone marrow. A stem cell transplant is quite similar to a bone marrow transplant. 

Hematologists and oncologists are specialists who treat people with various types of blood related cancers. 

Related Resource Pages on Band Back Together:

Cancer Resources
Brain Cancer Resources
Breast Cancer Resources
Colorectal Cancer Resources
Liver Cancer Resources

Lung Cancer Resources

Pancreatic Cancer Resources

Pediatric Cancer Resources

Skin Cancer Resources
Testicular Cancer Resources
Throat Cancer Resources


Additional Resources:

Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) offers information, research, and support to patients and family members battling blood cancers. 

American Cancer Society saves lives and creates a world with less cancer and more birthdays by helping people stay well, helping people get well, by finding cures, and by fighting back. Tons of good links to types of cancer, how to prevent cancer, and different types of cancer.

National Cancer Institute coordinates the National Cancer Program, which conducts and supports research, training, health information dissemination, and other programs with respect to the cause, diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of cancer, rehabilitation from cancer, and the continuing care of cancer patients and the families of cancer patients. Website has links to clinical trials and a comprehensive list of cancer-treating drugs.

Stand Up To Cancer new initiative created to accelerate groundbreaking cancer research that will get new therapies to patients quickly and save lives. SU2C's goal is to bring together the best and the brightest in the cancer community, encouraging collaboration instead of competition. By galvanizing the entertainment industry, SU2C creates awareness and builds broad public support for this effort.

American Cancer Fund is a non-profit organization providing reliable resources to educate, advocate, and support cancer patients and their families. 

CureSearch National Childhood Cancer Foundation has a list of the most current active Children’s Oncology Group cancer centers.

Mayo Clinic  is a non-profit worldwide leader in medical care and research for people from all walks of life. Their mission is to inspire hope and contribute to health and well-being by providing the best care to every patient through integrated clinical practice, education and research.

Be The Match is the bone marrow registry program. It's easy to register and you can do it from the comfort of your own home. Donating marrow saves lives. Please consider registering.