What is Leukemia?

Leukemia, also spelled leukaemia, is a group of cancers that usually begin in the bone marrow and result in high numbers of abnormal white blood cells. These white blood cells are not fully developed and are called blasts or leukemia cells. Symptoms may include bleeding and bruising problems, feeling tired, fever, and an increased risk of infections. These symptoms occur due to a lack of normal blood cells. Diagnosis is typically made by blood tests or bone marrow biopsy. The exact cause of leukemia is unknown. Different kinds of leukemia are believed to have different causes. Both inherited and environmental (non-inherited) factors are believed to be involved. Risk factors include smoking, ionizing radiation, some chemicals (such as benzene), prior chemotherapy, and Down syndrome. People with a family history of leukemia are also at higher risk.

There are four main types of leukemia- acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), acute myeloid leukemia (AML), chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) and chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) — as well as a number of less common types.

Leukemias and lymphomas both belong to a broader group of tumors that affect the blood, bone marrow, and lymphoid system, known as tumors of the hematopoietic and lymphoid tissues. Certain types of leukemia may be managed with watchful waiting. The success of treatment depends on the type of leukemia and the age of the person. Outcomes have improved in the developed world. The average five-year survival rate is 57% in the United States.

In 2012, leukemia developed in 352,000 people globally and caused 265,000 deaths. It is the most common type of cancer in children, with three quarters of leukemia cases in children being the acute lymphoblastic type. However, about 90% of all leukemias are diagnosed in adults, with AML and CLL being most common in adults. It occurs more commonly in the developed world.

Treatment may involve some combination of chemotherapy, radiation therapy, targeted therapy, and bone marrow transplant, in addition to supportive care and palliative care as needed. In children under 15, the five-year survival rate is greater than 60 to 85%, depending on the type of leukemia. In children with acute leukemia who are cancer-free after five years, the cancer is unlikely to return.

Specific Types:

  • Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) is the most common type of leukemia in young children. It also affects adults, especially those 65 and older. Standard treatments involve chemotherapy and radiotherapy. The survival rates vary by age: 85% in children and 50% in adults. Subtypes include precursor B acute lymphoblastic leukemia, precursor T acute lymphoblastic leukemia, Burkitt’s leukemia, and acute biphenotypic leukemia.
  • Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) most often affects adults over the age of 55. It sometimes occurs in younger adults, but it almost never affects children. Two-thirds of affected people are men. The five-year survival rate is 75%. It is incurable, but there are many effective treatments. One subtype is B-cell prolymphocytic leukemia, a more aggressive disease.
  • Acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) occurs more commonly in adults than in children, and more commonly in men than women. It is treated with chemotherapy. The five-year survival rate is 40%, except for APL (Acute Promyelocytic Leukemia), which has a survival rate greater than 90%. Subtypes of AML include acute promyelocytic leukemia, acute myeloblastic leukemia, and acute megakaryoblastic leukemia.
  • Chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) occurs mainly in adults; a very small number of children also develop this disease. It is treated with imatinib (Gleevec in United States, Glivec in Europe) or other drugs. The five-year survival rate is 90%. One subtype is chronic myelomonocytic leukemia.
  • Hairy cell leukemia (HCL) is sometimes considered a subset of chronic lymphocytic leukemia, but does not fit neatly into this category. About 80% of affected people are adult men. No cases in children have been reported. HCL is incurable but easily treatable. Survival is 96% to 100% at ten years.
  • T-cell prolymphocytic leukemia (T-PLL) is a very rare and aggressive leukemia affecting adults; somewhat more men than women are diagnosed with this disease. Despite its overall rarity, it is the most common type of mature T cell leukemia; nearly all other leukemias involve B cells. It is difficult to treat, and the median survival is measured in months.
  • Large granular lymphocytic leukemia may involve either T-cells or NK cells; like hairy cell leukemia, which involves solely B cells, it is a rare and indolent (not aggressive) leukemia.
  • Adult T-cell leukemia is caused by human T-lymphotropic virus (HTLV), a virus similar to HIV. Like HIV, HTLV infects CD4+ T-cells and replicates within them; however, unlike HIV, it does not destroy them. Instead, HTLV “immortalizes” the infected T-cells, giving them the ability to proliferate abnormally. Human T-cell lymphotropic virus types I and II (HTLV-I/II) are endemic in certain areas of the world.

Signs and symptoms:
Damage to the bone marrow, by way of displacing the normal bone marrow cells with higher numbers of immature white blood cells, results in a lack of blood platelets, which are important in the blood clotting process. This means Symptoms_of_leukemiapeople with leukemia may easily become bruised, bleed excessively, or develop pinprick bleeds (petechiae). White blood cells, which are involved in fighting pathogens, may be suppressed or dysfunctional. This could cause the patient’s immune system to be unable to fight off a simple infection or to start attacking other body cells. Because leukemia prevents the immune system from working normally, some patients experience frequent infection, ranging from infected tonsils, sores in the mouth, or diarrhea to life-threatening pneumonia or opportunistic infections. Finally, the red blood cell deficiency leads to anemia, which may cause dyspnea and pallor. Some patients experience other symptoms, such as feeling sick, having fevers, chills, night sweats, feeling fatigued and other flu-like symptoms. Some patients experience nausea or a feeling of fullness due to an enlarged liver and spleen; this can result in unintentional weight loss. Blasts affected by the disease may come together and become swollen in the liver or in the lymph nodes causing pain and leading to nausea. If the leukemic cells invade the central nervous system, then neurological symptoms (notably headaches) can occur. Uncommon neurological symptoms like migraines, seizures, or coma can occur as a result of brain stem pressure. All symptoms associated with leukemia can be attributed to other diseases. Consequently, leukemia is always diagnosed through medical tests. The word leukemia, which means ‘white blood’, is derived from the disease’s namesake high white blood cell counts that most leukemia patients have before treatment. The high number of white blood cells are apparent when a blood sample is viewed under a microscope. Frequently, these extra white blood cells are immature or dysfunctional. The excessive number of cells can also interfere with the level of other cells, causing a harmful imbalance in the blood count. Some leukemia patients do not have high white blood cell counts visible during a regular blood count. This less-common condition is called aleukemia. The bone marrow still contains cancerous white blood cells which disrupt the normal production of blood cells, but they remain in the marrow instead of entering the bloodstream, where they would be visible in a blood test. For an aleukemic patient, the white blood cell counts in the bloodstream can be normal or low. Aleukemia can occur in any of the four major types of leukemia, and is particularly common in hairy cell leukemia.