Blood Health


Written by
Dr. K Sneha
and medically reviewed by Varadarajan Kumar

13 Aug 2019  -  5 min read



Leukemia is cancer of blood or bone marrow and is one of the most common types of cancer affecting children. Read about its symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment


Cancer that results from the abnormal growth of the blood-forming tissues, bone marrow, and the lymphatic system is called leukemia. There are many types of leukemia, amongst which, some are more common in children, and others occur mostly in adults. Most types of leukemia affect the white blood cells, which fight infections in the body. But in leukemia, abnormal white blood cells are produced by the bone marrow, which does not function like normal WBC.

It is the most common type of cancer affecting children below 15 years of age. The treatment is complex, and it depends on the type of leukemia. It can also be fatal.

What Causes Leukemia?

The exact cause is still not known, but scientists believe that a combination of genetic and environmental factors play a role.

How Does Leukemia Affect the Body?

The blood has three cells, namely white blood cells (WBC), red blood cells (RBC), and platelets. WBC fight infections, RBC help supply oxygen to the body, and platelets help in blood clotting. These cells are made in the bone marrow every day. In leukemia, the bone marrow produces large amounts of abnormal white blood cells, even more than RBC. WBCs are of two types, which are lymphoid cells and myeloid cells, and this cancer can affect either type of cells.

These abnormal WBCs formed do not function like healthy white cells, and thus cannot fight infections. As the number of WBC increases in the blood, it starts affecting the function of important organs in the body. In later stages, there are not enough RBCs, platelets, and normal WBCs in the blood, to carry oxygen, clot the blood, and fight infection. This results in anemia and easy bruising.

How Is Leukemia Classified?

Leukemia is classified either by its speed of progression or the type of cell affected.

The classification based on the type of cell affected is:

  • Lymphocytic leukemia - The lymphoid cells (lymphocytes), which form the lymphatic tissue, are affected.

  • Myelogenous leukemia - The myeloid cells, which produce red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelet-producing cells, are affected.

The classification based on the speed of progression is:

  • Chronic leukemia - This type progresses very slowly and goes undiagnosed for years. The blood cells are more mature, so they function normally for some time, and do not replicate and spread quickly. There are many types of chronic leukemia.

What Are the Types of Leukemia?

There are many types of leukemia, and the common ones are:

  • Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) - It is the most common childhood cancer, but can affect adults also.

  • Acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) - It is the most common type of acute leukemia affecting both children and adults.

  • Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) - It is the most common chronic leukemia in adults.

  • Chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) - It is mostly seen in grown-ups.

  • Hairy cell leukemia - It is a rare and chronic type of leukemia, which affects the B cells (lymphocytes).

  • Myelodysplastic syndromes - It is a group of conditions that result when the bone marrow produce immature blood cells.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms Seen in Leukemia?

The early signs of leukemia are:

  • Tiredness or fatigue.

  • Unintentional weight loss.

  • Fever.

  • Chills.

  • Frequent infections.

The other signs and symptoms of leukemia are:

  • Enlarged lymph nodes.

  • Swollen liver or spleen.

  • Easy bruising.

  • Frequent nosebleeds.

  • Petechiae (red spots on the skin).

  • Night sweats.

  • Bone pain.

  • Anemia.

Leukemia can spread to other parts like lungs, gastrointestinal tract, kidneys, etc., and cause symptoms. The presence of headaches, confusion, nausea, and seizures are signs of cancer spreading to the central nervous system.

What Are the Risk Factors for Leukemia?

The factors that increase your risk of leukemia are:

  • Family history.

  • Smoking.

  • Genetic or chromosomal disorder.

  • Blood diseases.

  • Chemotherapy.

  • Radiation therapy.

  • Radiation exposure.

  • Chemical exposure.

How is leukemia diagnosed?

As chronic leukemia does not produce many symptoms, it is diagnosed during a routine blood test. And in acute leukemia, if your doctor suspects leukemia after taking a complete medical history, he or she will look for signs of anemia, swollen lymph nodes, and enlarged spleen or liver. The doctor will tell you to get the following tests done:

  • Blood test - To look for abnormal levels of red or white blood cells or platelets.

  • Bone marrow test - A sample of bone marrow from the hipbone, is taken using a long and thin needle. Leukemia cells are detected in this sample. Other tests are performed on these cancer cells, which reveal certain characteristics and are used to determine treatment options.

What Are the Treatment Options for Leukemia?

The treatment depends on the type and stage of the disease, and the general health of the patient. The treatment options include:

1) Chemotherapy:

The cancer cells are destroyed using drugs. The drug is either injected into the vein or muscle or CSF (cerebrospinal fluid) or can be taken orally.

2) Radiation therapy:

High-energy X-rays are used to destroy the cancer cells to prevent them from multiplying. Only a specific part of the body or the entire body might be exposed to this radiation.

3) Immunotherapy or Biologic therapy:

Here, medicines that boost the body’s immune response are administered. Interleukins and Interferon are used.

4)Targeted therapy:

Drugs like Imatinib are used to block genes or proteins, which are needed for the growth of cancer cells. It can either block the signals that the cells send to grow, or cut the blood supply to these cells or kill them.

5) Stem cell transplant:

Here, cells in the bone marrow are destroyed through chemical or radiation therapy, then replaced with stem cells. The new stem cells are infused into one of your veins, which grow into healthy blood cells. The stem cells are either taken from a donor or your body.

6) Surgery:

Splenectomy, that is the surgical removal of the spleen, is done if it is filled with cancer cells and affecting nearby organs.

The prognosis differs depending on the type of leukemia. People under remission need to undergo regular tests to make sure cancer does not recur. To know more about the types and treatment of leukemia, consult a doctor online.

Frequently Asked Questions


How to test for leukemia?

Leukemia is usually diagnosed during a routine blood test. And if your doctor suspects this cancer based on your signs and symptoms, he or she might tell you to get a blood test and bone marrow test to confirm the diagnosis. The blood tests show abnormal levels of blood cells, and the cancer cells are detected in bone marrow collected from the hipbone.


How do you get leukemia?

The cause is not still clearly understood, but a combination of genetic and environmental factors seem to play a role. The risk factors include smoking, family history, previous chemotherapy or radiation therapy, and blood disorders.


What is acute myeloid leukemia?

Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is a type of rapid-growing blood cancer, which affects the myeloid cells (a type of white blood cells). It results in a lot of immature white blood cells in the blood and bone marrow. This type of leukemia affects both adults and children.


What is feline leukemia virus?

Feline leukemia virus (FeLV) is a type of RNA virus that causes infection in cats. This virus suppresses the immune system of cats, making them susceptible to deadly infections.


Is leukemia a cancer?

Yes, leukemia is a cancer of blood, bone marrow, or the lymphatic system.


How long can you live with leukemia?

Leukemia can be fatal, but depending on your health, type of leukemia, and treatment, the survival rate defers. In kids, most cases go into remission with treatment, and the survival rate is 5 years or more. But in adults, the prognosis is not that good.


Can you survive leukemia?

The survival rate for children and adults younger than 55 years is 5 years.


Which leukemia is most dangerous?

Acute types of leukemia are dangerous, as they spread rapidly. The treatment is complex and needs to be aggressive.


How do kids get leukemia?

The cause of childhood leukemia is still not understood. But it is believed that changes in the DNA of normal blood-forming cells in the bone marrow result in the production of abnormal cells.


What are the first signs of childhood leukemia?

The signs of childhood leukemia are pale skin, frequent infections, repeated nosebleeds, easy bruising, prolonged bleeding from a cut, weight loss, stomach pain, and breathing problems.

Last reviewed at:
13 Aug 2019  -  5 min read



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