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Understanding leukemia – Types, causes, symptoms, and treatment

Understanding leukemia – Types, causes, symptoms, and treatment

Leukemia is a cancer of the blood-forming cells in the body. Generally, leukemia refers to cancer of white blood cells, but in some cases, it may start in other blood cells. White blood cells play a crucial role in protecting the body from invasion by harmful bacteria, fungi, viruses, and various foreign particles. In people with leukemia, the bone marrow produces white blood cells that do not function normally. Plus, they crowd out the number of red blood cells and platelets in the body. Keep reading to learn more about leukemia.

Types of leukemia

Leukemia can be acute or chronic. When leukemia is acute, the cancer cells in the body multiple rapidly. Whereas, chronic leukemia develops gradually, so the initials symptoms are mild. The disease is also categorized based on the type of cell it involves. Myelogenous leukemia involves myeloid cells, and lymphocytic leukemia involves lymphocytes. Based on this, there are four main types of leukemia.

  • Acute myelogenous leukemia (AML)

This is the most common form of acute leukemia. The onset of AML is often seen in older adults. Men are more susceptible to it than women.

  • Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL)

ALL is more common in children than in adults. Children below 5 years are at the highest risk of developing ALL.

  • Chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML)

Adults are more likely to get CML than children. But overall, this leukemia is a rare cancer.

  • Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)

People over the age of 55 years are more likely to develop CLL. It is rarely seen in children, but younger adults may develop it.


Researchers do not exactly know what causes leukemia, but cancer seems to cause due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors. In general, studies suggest that the disease occurs when some blood cells acquire mutations in the DNA. When the DNA of developing blood cells incur damage, the cells grow and divide rapidly. Moreover, these cells do not die at a natural point in their life cycle and crowd out healthy blood cells. Therefore, the body is left with fewer healthy blood cells, which causes symptoms indicating leukemia.

Signs and symptoms

The exact signs and symptoms may vary depending on the type of leukemia. But some symptoms may be common across all types.

  • Coughing or chest pain
  • Fever or chills
  • Shortness of breath
  • Night sweats
  • Persistent weakness and fatigue
  • Swollen, painless lymph nodes, commonly in the neck and armpits
  • Bone pain and tenderness
  • Bruising or bleeding easily
  • Frequent nosebleeds
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Petechiae or tiny red spots on the skin

The cancer cells that cause leukemia can also enter other organs and tissues. For example, if the cells affect the central nervous system, the individual may experience loss of muscle control, headache, confusion, nausea and vomiting, and seizures. The cancer cells can also spread to the lungs, heart, kidneys, testes, and gastrointestinal tract.


The treatment varies depending on the type and severity of leukemia, the individual’s age, and overall health. As some forms of leukemia develop gradually, they do not require immediate treatment. Some common treatments for leukemia include:

  • Chemotherapy: This is a common form of treatment prescribed for cancer. It uses medications to kill leukemia cells. These medications may be given in the form of pills or intravenous injections.
  • Radiation therapy: This therapy makes use of strong beams of energy to destroy leukemia cells and inhibit their growth.
  • Biological therapy: This therapy helps the immune system identify and kill cancer cells that cause leukemia.

Other treatments that may be used include targeted therapy, interferon therapy, and stem cell transplantation.

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