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What Is Leukemia?

Leukemia is cancer of the blood and bone marrow (the sponge-like tissue in the center of the bone in which blood cells are produced) that causes a large amount of abnormal white blood cells.

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What Causes Leukemia?

Leukemia is thought to occur when blood cells change, which alters the cells’ ability to develop and function normally. Over time, these cells crowd out healthy blood cells in the bone marrow, leaving fewer healthy white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets.

What Are the Symptoms of Leukemia?

The symptoms of leukemia vary depending on the type and stage of leukemia. Common symptoms include:

  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Fever and chills
  • Losing weight
  • Bruising easily
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Bone pain and tenderness
  • Frequent and severe infections
  • Excessive sweating

What Are the Types of Leukemia?

Doctors classify leukemia based on how fast it progresses (acute or chronic) and which type of cells it affects (lymphocytic or myelogenous).

  • Acute leukemia: Abnormal blood cells increase and the disease worsens quickly.
  • Chronic leukemia: Abnormal blood cells increase more slowly. Some forms of chronic leukemia produce no symptoms initially and you might be unaware of it for years.
  • Lymphocytic leukemia: Lymphocytic leukemia affects the lymphoid cells (a type of white blood cell).
  • Myelogenous leukemia: Myelogenous leukemia affects the myeloid cells, which eventually become white blood cells, red blood cells, or platelets.

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There are 4 main types of leukemia. Some forms of leukemia are more common in children, while others are more common in adults.

Who Usually Gets Leukemia?

You may have a greater chance of developing leukemia if:

  • You have had chemotherapy or radiation therapy for another cancer
  • You have a genetic disorder such as Down syndrome
  • You are a smoker (for AML)
  • Members of your family have had leukemia
  • You have been exposed to benzene

What Are Common Treatment Options?

Determining the right treatment for leukemia depends on a variety of factors including age, overall health, and the type of leukemia. Common treatments include:

  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation
  • Targeted therapy (drugs that attack weaknesses in cancer cells)
  • Biological therapy (treatments that help the immune system identify and attack cancer cells)
  • Stem cell transplant (a procedure to replace diseased bone marrow)


  1. Leukemia. Mayo Clinic. March 13, 2018. Accessed April 23, 2019.
  2. Leukemia. Cleveland Clinic. Reviewed October 31, 2016. Accessed April 23, 2019.

This article originally appeared on Hematology Advisor