Leukemia: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments

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Leukemia starts when the DNA of a single cell in the bone marrow changes (mutates) and can’t develop and function normally. Treatments for leukemia depend on the type of leukemia you have, your age and overall health, and if leukemia has spread to other organs or tissues.

What is Leukemia?

Leukaemias are cancers of the white blood cells, which begin in the bone marrow. Unlike other cancers, Leukemia generally doesn’t form into a mass (tumor) that can be seen in imaging tests, such as X-rays.

There are several broad categories of blood cells, including red blood cells (RBCs), white blood cells (WBCs), and platelets. Generally, leukemia refers to cancers of the WBCs. Although it has many different types, some are more common in children; others are more common in adults so that treatment depends on the type of leukemia you have and other factors.



Leukemia symptoms vary, depending on the type. Its common signs and symptoms may include:

  • Fever or chills
  • Persistent fatigue, weakness
  • Frequent or severe infections
  • Losing weight without trying
  • Swollen lymph nodes, enlarged liver or spleen
  • Easy bleeding or bruising
  • Recurrent nosebleeds
  • Tiny red spots in your skin (petechiae)
  • Excessive sweating, especially at night
  • Bone pain or tenderness


The onset of leukemia can be acute (sudden onset) or chronic (slow onset). In acute leukemia, cancer cells multiply quickly but in chronic leukemia, the disease progresses slowly and early symptoms may be very mild.

There are four main types:

Acute myeloid leukemia (AML)

AML can occur in children and adults. According to the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program of the National Cancer Institute (NCI)Trusted Source, about 20,000 new cases of AML are diagnosed each year in the United States. AML is the most common form and the 5-year survival rate for AML is 29.5 percent.

Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL)

ALL occurs mostly in children. The NCITrusted Source estimates about 6,000 new cases of ALL are diagnosed annually and the 5-year survival rate for all is 69.9 percent.

Chronic myeloid leukemia (CML)

Unlike ALL, CML affects mostly adults. About 9,000 new cases of CML are diagnosed annually, according to the NCITrusted Source and the 5-year survival rate for CML is 70.6 percent.

Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)

CLL is most likely to affect people over age 55 and it’s very rare in children. According to the NCITrusted Source, about 21,000 new cases of CLL are diagnosed annually and the 5-year survival rate for CLL is 87.2 percent.

Hairy cell leukemia is a very rare subtype of CLL which name comes from the appearance of the cancerous lymphocytes under a microscope.



Researchers do not know what exactly causes leukemia. However, there are some risk factors for developing this cancer. Some of these risk factors include:

  • Previous chemotherapy or radiation for other types of cancers
  • Genetic disorders like Down syndrome
  • Other blood cancer disorders
  • Repeated exposure to the chemical benzene, for example, is cigarette smoking
  • Family history


You might have seen claims that certain foods, supplements, or other products can reduce your risk of cancer. While that might sound tempting, you should know that most of those claims aren’t backed up by enough scientific research.

There are a few foods with some evidence that they might prevent some cancers. Most of these foods are a healthy addition to any diet, so trying them certainly can’t hurt.

Until more research is done that finds specific ways to prevent leukemia, the best method is to reduce the risk factors you can control.

There are a few lifestyle changes you can make to reduce your risk of leukemia. These steps can also reduce your risk of other types of cancer. They include:

  • Quit smoking. Smoking increases your risk of multiple types of cancer, including leukemia. Never smoking or quitting smoking will lower your risk of leukemia.
  • Maintain a moderate weight. Having obesity is another risk for leukemia that you can control. Taking steps to keep a moderate weight can reduce your risk of leukemia. You can start by developing a balanced diet and making physical activity part of your everyday life.
  • Avoid breathing in certain chemicals. The chemicals benzene and formaldehyde are known to increase your risk of leukemia. These chemicals can be found in some workplaces and buildings. If possible, avoiding these chemicals can lower your risk of leukemia.


Leukemia is usually treated by a hematologist-oncologist. These are doctors who specialize in blood disorders and cancer. The treatment depends on the type and stage of cancer. And it also depends on the patient’s overall health and other medical conditions.

Some forms of this cancer grow slowly and do not need immediate treatment. However, treatment for leukemia usually involves one or more of the following:

  • Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. So that depending on the type of this cancer, you may take either a single drug or a combination of different drugs.
  • Radiation therapy. This therapy uses high-energy radiation to damage cancer cells and inhibits their growth. Radiation can be applied to a specific area or to your entire body.
  • Stem cell transplantation. A stem cell transplant replaces diseased bone marrow with healthy bone marrow, either your own (called autologous transplantation) or from a donor (called allogeneic transplantation). This procedure is also called a bone marrow transplant.
  • Biological or immune therapy. Biological or immune therapy uses treatments that help your immune system recognize and attack cancer cells.
  • Targeted therapy. Targeted therapy uses medications that take advantage of vulnerabilities in cancer cells. For example, imatinib is a targeted drug that’s commonly used against CML.

Where to get tested

You can arrange a clinic visit online at MaNaDr application to see a doctor if you are showing any symptoms.

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