Key Points about Leukemia (Blood Cancer)

  • Leukemia is cancer that affects the bone marrow and lymphatic system.
  • Leukemia occurs when the DNA of certain blood cells becomes mutated, but experts don’t quite know why this happens
  • Treatment for leukemia may include a combination of chemotherapy, biological therapy, radiation therapy or stem cell transplant.

Overview

Leukemia – or blood cancer – is a type of cancer that affects the body’s blood-forming tissues, which includes the bone marrow and lymphatic system. There are many types of leukemia; some more commonly affect children and some more commonly affect adults. Leukemia usually affects the white blood cells, which are an important part of the immune system.

Leukemia causes 

Experts haven’t yet pinpointed the exact cause of leukemia. However, they believe that leukemia occurs when some blood cells acquire mutations in their DNA.

Leukemia risk factors

There are a number of factors that can increase your risk for developing leukemia, such as:

  • Being a smoker
  • Having been exposed to certain chemicals, such as benzene (found in gasoline and used in the chemical industry)
  • Having certain genetic disorders, such as Down syndrome
  • Having undergone certain types of chemotherapy or radiation therapy
  • Having a family history of leukemia

Leukemia symptoms

Signs and symptoms of leukemia vary by type of leukemia, and can include:

  • Bone pain or tenderness
  • Easy bleeding or bruising
  • Enlarged liver or spleen
  • Excessive sweating, particularly at night
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Fever or chills
  • Frequent nosebleeds
  • Frequent, severe infections
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Tiny red dots on the skin (petechiae)
  • Unintentional weight loss

Leukemia diagnosis

Your specialist may recommend one or more of the following tests to diagnose leukemia:

  • Physical exam. Your doctor will perform a comprehensive physical exam to check for signs of leukemia, such as pale skin, swollen lymph nodes and enlargement of the liver or spleen.
  • Blood test. Your specialist may use a blood test to check for abnormal levels of white or red blood cells or platelets.
  • Bone marrow test. Your specialist may take a sample of bone marrow from your hipbone, so it can be checked for leukemia cells in the lab.

Leukemia treatment

Our specialists customize leukemia treatment based on a variety of factors, such as the type of leukemia, your age and overall health. Depending on these factors, your treatment for leukemia may include:

  • Radiation therapy. This treatment uses high-energy beams – such as X-ray or protons – to destroy leukemia cells. People typically have to undergo several rounds of radiation therapy treatment for results.
  • Biological therapy. This type of treatment helps your immune system recognize and destroy leukemia cells. 
  • Chemotherapy. This treatment involves using medications – either oral (by mouth) or intravenous (by vein) – to destroy leukemia cells.
  • Stem cell transplant. In this procedure, your specialist replaces your disease bone marrow with healthy bone marrow. You might receive bone marrow from a donor, or your specialist may be able to use your own marrow.

When should I seek care?

If you experience any of these symptoms, start by voicing your concerns and symptoms to your primary care provider. From there, your doctor may suggest seeing an oncologist for more specialized treatment.