Key Points about Leukemia

  • There are many types of leukemia, and most of them affect the white blood cells.
  • Doctors use biopsy, blood tests and physical exams to diagnose leukemia.
  • Treatment for leukemia may include chemotherapy, targeted therapy, stem cell transplant, immunotherapy and/or radiation therapy.
Types of leukemia
Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL) Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL) Chronic Myeloid Leukemia (CML)


Leukemia is a type of cancer that affects the tissues of the body that create blood, including bone marrow (spongy material inside bones) and the lymphatic system. Most types of leukemia affect the white blood cells, which help the body fight infection.

There are many types of leukemia; some types affect mostly children, while other types usually affect adults.

Leukemia causes

Leukemia occurs when blood cells develop a mutation (change) in their DNA. The mutated cells then multiply quickly, causing the cancer to grow out of control.

Leukemia risk factors

The following factors may increase your risk for developing leukemia:

  • Being a smoker
  • Having a family history of leukemia
  • Having been exposed to certain harmful chemicals, including benzene
  • Having certain genetic disorders, including Down syndrome
  • Having undergone chemotherapy or radiation therapy

Leukemia symptoms

Signs or symptoms of leukemia can include:

  • Chills
  • Easy bruising or bleeding
  • Enlarged spleen or liver
  • Excessive sweating
  • Extreme fatigue or weakness
  • Fever
  • Night sweats
  • Pain or tenderness in the bones
  • Petechiae (tiny red spots on the skin)
  • Recurrent nosebleeds
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Unintentional weight loss

Leukemia diagnosis

Your oncologist may use one or more of the following tests to diagnose this condition:

  • Physical exam – your doctor will perform a complete physical exam – including asking questions about your health history, your symptoms and related risk factors. Your doctor will check your lymph nodes for swelling.
  • Blood tests – your doctor will send a sample of your blood to the laboratory for close analysis. The lab can determine if the blood has unusual levels of white blood cells, red blood cells or platelets.
  • Bone marrow biopsy – in this test, your doctor removes a biopsy (small tissue sample) from your bone marrow (spongy material inside the bones). This sample is sent to the laboratory, where a specialist closely checks the biopsy for leukemia cells. Your specialist may use this information to help formulate the optimal treatment for your leukemia type.

Leukemia treatment

Depending on your personal health history, the extent of the leukemia and other factors, your oncologist may recommend one or more of the following treatment options:

  • Bone marrow transplant – also known as a stem cell transplant, this treatment involves infusing your diseased bone marrow with healthy bone marrow. Doing so can help your body fight the cancer.
  • Chemotherapy – during this treatment, medication is used to destroy cancerous cells. Chemotherapy can be taken via an oral (by mouth) pill or intravenously (through a vein).
  • Immunotherapy – this treatment uses your body’s immune system to fight the cancerous cells.
  • Radiation therapy – this treatment uses high-powered energy beams to destroy cancerous cells. 
  • Targeted therapy – in this treatment, specialized medications kill cancerous blood cells. Targeted therapy may help preserve more surrounding healthy tissue than other treatment options.

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.

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