Leukemia: Causes, treatment, and early signs

Leukemia is a cancer of the blood or bone marrow. Bone marrow produces blood cells. Leukemia can happen when there is a problem with the production of blood cells. It usually affects the leukocytes, or white blood cells.

It is most likely to affect people over the age of 55 years, but it is also the most common cancer in those aged under 15 years.

In the United States, 62,130 people are expected to receive a diagnosis of leukemia in 2017, and around 24,500 deaths will likely be due to this disease.

Acute leukemia develops quickly and worsens rapidly, but chronic leukemia gets worse over time.

Fast facts on leukemia

Here are some key points about leukemia. More detail is in the main article.

About 62,130 new cases of leukemia are expected to be diagnosed in the United States in 2017.

Leukemia is one of the most common childhood cancers, but it most often occurs in older adults.

Leukemia can be fatal, but there are ways of treating and controlling the disease and its symptoms.


Leukemia cells

Leukemia happens when the DNA of immature blood cells, mainly white cells, becomes damaged in some way.

This causes the blood cells to grow and divide continuously, so that there are too many.

Healthy blood cells die after a while and are replaced by new cells, which are produced in the bone marrow.

The abnormal blood cells do not die when they should. They accumulate, occupying more space.

As more cancer cells are produced, they stop the healthy white blood cells from growing and functioning normally, by crowding out space in the blood.

Essentially, the bad cells crowd out the good cells in the blood.

Risk factors

Some factors increase the risk of developing leukemia.

The following are either known or suspected factors:

artificial ionizing radiation

viruses, such as the human T-lymphotropic virus (HTLV-1) and HIV

benzene and some petrochemicals

alkylating chemotherapy agents used in previous cancers

hair dyes


Genetic predisposition: Some people appear to have a higher risk of developing leukemia because of a fault in one or several genes.

Down syndrome: People with Down syndrome appear to have a higher risk, possibly due to certain chromosomal changes.

It has been suggested that exposure to electromagnetic energy might be linked to leukemia, but there is not enough evidence to confirm this.


There are various types of leukemia, and they affect people differently. Treatment options will depend on the type of leukemia and the person’s age and overall state of health.

Progress in medicine means that treatment can now aim for complete remission, where the cancer goes away completely for at least 5 years after treatment.

In 1975, the chances of surviving for 5 years or more after receiving a diagnosis of leukemia were 33.1 percent. By 2009, this figure had risen to 62.9 percent.

The main type of treatment is chemotherapy. This will be tailored to the type of cancer a patient has.

If treatment starts early, the chance of remission is higher.

Types of treatment include:

targeted therapy

interferon therapy


radiation therapy


stem cell transplantation

Chemotherapy can affect the whole body, but targeted therapy is aimed at a specific part of the cancer cell.

Some types of chronic leukemia do not need treatment in the early stages, but monitoring is essential. The oncologist may suggest watchful waiting with frequent doctor’s visits.

For a type of leukemia known as chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), a bone marrow transplant may be effective. Younger patients are more likely to undergo transplantation successfully.

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Early signs

Signs and symptoms of leukemia vary.

They may include:

being tired all the time

weight loss

having fevers or chills

getting frequent infections

There is more information on symptoms later in this article.


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