Leukaemia is cancer of the parts of the body that make blood, including the bone marrow and lymphatic system.
The 3 main types of blood cells include:
In leukaemia, the bone marrow makes too many white blood cells that are abnormal and don’t function properly. This can result in infections, because the abnormal white cells can't do their usual job properly. Also, the leukaemia cells may crowd out normal cells in the bone marrow, leading to a reduction in red cells (causing anaemia) and platelets (which can result in bleeding).
Leukaemia can be either acute or chronic.
Acute leukaemia happens suddenly and progresses rapidly. There are 2 major types of acute leukaemia.
Chronic leukaemia involves more mature blood cells than acute leukaemia. Chronic leukaemia most often affects middle-aged to older adults and may produce little in the way of symptoms for many years.
There are 2 major types of chronic leukaemia.
The cause of leukaemia is unknown. A combination of genetic and environmental factors seems to be involved. Factors that can increase the risk of leukaemia include:
Chronic myeloid leukaemia is linked to an abnormal chromosome called the Philadelphia chromosome.
Symptoms may be caused by anaemia (reduced red cells), reduced platelets and a lack of properly functioning white blood cells. They include:
Other symptoms include:
Many people with chronic leukaemia do not have any symptoms. The disease may be discovered during a routine blood test.
A blood test called a full blood count can determine if there are elevated levels of white blood cells in your blood. Looking at the cells under the microscope can determine whether these cells are abnormal. The levels of red blood cells and platelets may be reduced.
A bone marrow aspiration or biopsy can be done to look for evidence of leukaemia cells in the bone marrow. A sample of bone marrow can be taken from the hip bone using a long, thin needle. This test is usually performed using local anaesthetic.
Additional tests may be needed to determine the type of leukaemia and its severity.
Treatment and outlook will depend on the type of leukaemia, how advanced the leukaemia is, your age and your general health.
Treatment options include:
It’s usually recommended that people with acute leukaemia start treatment straight away – often within 24 hours of diagnosis.
Acute forms of leukaemia can often be cured with chemotherapy and stem cell or bone marrow transplantation.
Chronic leukaemia may not produce symptoms or require treatment (other than close monitoring) for many years. When treatment is needed, it can relieve symptoms and control the disease, but complete cure is rare with chemotherapy. Stem cell transplants may offer the chance of cure for some people with chronic leukaemia.
Last Reviewed: 28 April 2013