Fast facts

  • Leukaemia is the general name for a group of cancers that affect a type of blood cells known as white blood cells. 
  • Most of the time, leukaemia is discovered during a routine blood test ordered for other reasons.
  • Leukaemia is a serious disease; however, large advances in diagnosis and treatment in the last decade has dramatically improved survival rates.

What is leukaemia?

Leukaemia is a type of cancer of the white blood cells (also called leukocytes). 

Causes

The cause of leukaemia, as with other cancers, is damage to the DNA of white blood cells. The exact cause of this damage is unknown in most cases, but can sometimes be due to irradiation or exposure to a toxic chemical. Certain chemotherapy drugs and benzene are known to cause leukaemia. 

White blood cells circulate throughout your body and have roles in fighting infection and disease. Damage to a white blood cell's DNA can cause the cell to multiply quickly and without control.

There are many types of white blood cells, broadly divided into two categories: myeloid cells and lymphoid cells. That is why some types of leukaemia are referred to as myeloid or lymphoid, depending on their cell of origin. 

 

Development of different types of blood cells.Development of various blood cell types from a common stem cell in the bone marrow. 

Leukaemia is one type of cancer that can occur in blood cells. Other types of blood cancers include lymphomas (cancers affecting the lymphatic system) and myelomas (cancers of plasma cells - the cells in our body that produce antibodies).

Bone marrow

The spongy, vascular or fatty tissue found inside bones, responsible for producing blood cells.

Chemotherapy

A medication-based treatment, usually used in the treatment of cancers. There are numerous, different types of chemotherapy drugs that can be prescribed by a specialist. These can commonly be used alongside other cancer treatments such as surgery and radiotherapy.

DNA

The genetic material of all living cells and some viruses. The full name is deoxyribonucleic acid.

Lymphomas

A tumour of lymph tissue, which is rich in lymphocytes, small white blood cells that have specific immune responses.

Benzene

A colourless chemical compound found in crude oil, petroleum and cigarette smoke and used in industries such as plastic manufacturing.

Risk factors

Risk factors for leukaemia include:

  • Exposure to high levels of ionising radiation;
  • Exposure to benzene, a chemical compound found in crude oil, petroleum and cigarette smoke, and used in industries such as plastic manufacturing;
  • Cigarette smoke: smoking has been shown to increase the risk of developing some types of leukaemia;
  • Leukaemia can develop as a side effect of chemotherapy that was used to treat a previous cancer;
  • Obesity: it is not fully clear how obesity increases the risk of leukaemia, but it is thought that it may weaken the immune system, which can allow cancers to develop without resistance;
  • Male gender: leukaemia is more common in men;
  • Increasing age, and;
  • Genetics and family history: the role of genetics in leukaemia is an area of ongoing research. Currently, only a few genetic links are known. One type of leukaemia, in which a clear genetic link is known, is chronic myeloid leukaemia (see 'Types', below).

Chemotherapy

A medication-based treatment, usually used in the treatment of cancers. There are numerous, different types of chemotherapy drugs that can be prescribed by a specialist. These can commonly be used alongside other cancer treatments such as surgery and radiotherapy.

Immune system

The organs and cells involved in protecting the body against infection.

Benzene

A colourless chemical compound found in crude oil, petroleum and cigarette smoke and used in industries such as plastic manufacturing.

Types

There are several types of leukaemia. Some types of leukaemia spread quickly and aggressively (acute leukaemia), while others can take a long time before they start causing symptoms (chronic leukaemia). Leukaemia is classified further by the type and maturity of the blood cells that are affected.

Acute leukaemia

Acute myeloid leukaemia

Acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) occurs when the bone marrow produces large numbers of immature blood cells, called blasts. These blasts flood the bone marrow and the blood, displace mature blood cells, and can cause symptoms such as anaemia, easy bruising, and fatigue.

AML is the most common form of acute leukaemia in adults. Men are more affected than women. The risk of AML increases with age.

Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia

Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia affects lymphoid cells. This type of leukaemia is more common in children, often diagnosed between 3-5 years of age. Boys are more commonly affected than girls.

Chronic leukaemia

Chronic myeloid leukaemia

In chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML), a fusion of two chromosomes in a cell creates a new gene, called BCR-ABL. This gene produces a protein that drives the development of the leukaemia. CML is treated by medications that target the BCR-ABL protein. 

Chronic lymphocytic leukaemia 

Chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL) is the most common type of leukaemia in the developed world. It is a diverse group of leukaemias that are more common in older people and affect slightly more men than women. 

Anaemia

A deficiency in red blood cells or haemoglobin in the body.

Bone marrow

The spongy, vascular or fatty tissue found inside bones, responsible for producing blood cells.

Gene

A unit of inheritance (heredity) of a living organism. A segment of genetic material, typically DNA, that specifies the structure of a protein or related molecules. Genes are passed on to offspring so that traits are inherited, making you who you are and what you look like.

Signs and symptoms

Signs and symptoms of leukaemia vary slightly according to type, but in general they may include:

  • Looking pale; 
  • Tiredness and breathlessness;
  • Frequent, persistent infections;
  • Unusual bleeding, nosebleeds;
  • Easy bruising;
  • Weight loss when you are not trying to lose weight;
  • An enlarged spleen, causing abdominal discomfort;
  • Swollen lymph nodes;
  • Fever or night sweats, and;
  • Bone pain.

Fever

An increase in body temperature above the normal temperature range. Fever is often caused by the body's immune reaction to infection.

Infections

Entry into the body of microorganisms that can reproduce and cause disease.

Spleen

An organ in the abdominal cavity that is involved in filtering out old blood cells and fighting infection.

Abdominal

Relating to the abdomen, the middle portion of the trunk which contains organs such as the intestines, stomach and liver.

Methods for diagnosis

Most of the time, leukaemia, particularly the chronic type, is discovered during a routine blood test ordered for other reasons. In general, the presence of leukaemia is suspected from the examination of the blood and confirmed by performing a bone marrow biopsy

Blood tests

In patients with leukaemia there is usually a higher-than-normal number of white blood cells and a lower-than-normal number of red blood cells or platelets.

Bone marrow biopsy

This involves taking a small sample of bone marrow from the centre of a bone, usually the hipbone. The biopsy can be performed under local or general anaesthesia.

The bone marrow sample is then examined to help determine the type and stage of leukaemia. The sample is also subjected to genetic testing (see below).

Genetic testing

The blood or bone marrow are analysed for specific genetic mutations that cause certain types of leukaemia. This is known as cytogenetic testing, If certain mutations are found, targeted therapies can be offered.

Other tests

In addition to the above tests, which are essential for the diagnosis of leukaemia, a patient diagnosed with leukaemia may undergo additional tests. These can include: 

Biopsy

The removal of a tissue sample for microscopic laboratory examination. It is used to determine the presence, cause and type of the disease.

Bone marrow

The spongy, vascular or fatty tissue found inside bones, responsible for producing blood cells.

Chemotherapy

A medication-based treatment, usually used in the treatment of cancers. There are numerous, different types of chemotherapy drugs that can be prescribed by a specialist. These can commonly be used alongside other cancer treatments such as surgery and radiotherapy.

Computerised tomography

A scan that uses X-rays to create a 3D image of the body. This can detect abnormalities more effectively than a simple X-ray can.

Magnetic resonance imaging

A type of imaging that uses a magnetic field and low-energy radio waves, instead of X-rays, to obtain images of organs.

Positron emission tomography

During positron emission tomography (PET) scan, an injection with a radioactive label is administered and then combined with a computerised tomography (CT) scan to produce functional images.

Ultrasound

A scan that uses high-frequency soundwaves to produce images of the body’s internal structures.

Lumbar puncture

A procedure that uses a needle to collect a sample of cerebrospinal fluid, which is the clear fluid surrounding the brain and spine, from the lower back (lumbar region) for analysis. It can also be performed to remove any excess fluid or to deliver medications.

Stages

The outcome of treatment for leukaemia can vary greatly depending on the stage at which the cancer was detected and treated.

The stages of chronic leukaemia are:

Stage A

One or two enlarged lymph nodes; normal red blood cell and platelet counts.

Stage B

More than three enlarged lymph nodes; normal red blood cell and platelet counts, but high white blood cell counts.

Stage C

Enlarged lymph nodes and enlarged spleen; high white blood cell counts, and low red blood cell and/or platelet counts.

 Acute leukaemia progresses too quickly to have distinct stages.

Spleen

An organ in the abdominal cavity that is involved in filtering out old blood cells and fighting infection.

Types of treatment

The treatment for leukaemia depends largely on the type of leukaemia you have been diagnosed with. Chemotherapy, stem cell transplant, leucopheresis and targeted therapies are common treatments for all leukaemia types.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy works by attacking cancer cells, either destroying them or stopping them from multiplying.

Acute leukaemia is treated in three phases: induction, consolidation and maintenance:

Induction therapy

The aim of induction therapy is to get rid of the cancer and induce a remission. This involves using chemotherapy to clear as many leukaemia cells from the bone marrow as possible. However, some leukaemia cells are bound to escape treatment.

Consolidation therapy

Consolidation therapy is used once the cancer is in remission - i.e., that cancer cells are gone from the blood and the bone marrow. In this phase of treatment, drugs or radiotherapy are used to remove any lingering cancer cells. 

Maintenance therapy

The aim of maintenance therapy is to prevent the return of leukaemia. It usually involves the use of chemotherapy. 

Side effects of therapy occur because chemotherapy can also affect healthy cells. Your doctor will monitor your dosage carefully to ensure that your dosage is optimal.

Stem cell transplant

A side effect of chemotherapy treatment is that it destroys healthy blood cells. In order to replace and replenish the lost cells, stem cell transplant can be used.

Stem cells are cells that have the potential to mature into various types of blood cells in the bone marrow. A stem cell transplant is often used in acute leukaemias, where remission has occurred, particularly in cases where the leukaemia is likely to recur. The procedure is less commonly used for treating chronic leukaemias, but still has a role if other treatments have failed.

Before chemotherapy starts, a supply of stem cells (taken from your body or from a donor) will be prepared and stored. After the chemotherapy regimen is completed, the stem cells are then given through an intravenous drip. Once in the bloodstream, they settle in the bone marrow and begin multiplying to produce new, healthy blood cells.

Stem cell transplants can only be performed if you are fit enough to undergo the procedure and if you have an aggressive form of leukaemia that is not responding to other treatments.

Leucopheresis

Leucopheresis involves your blood being cycled through a machine that removes abnormal white blood cells before returning the blood to your body, much like a dialysis machine removes waste products from your blood when your kidneys are not functioning properly. This is sometimes performed if the number of abnormal white cells in your blood is sufficiently high to endanger your wellbeing.

Targeted therapies

Targeted therapies are new therapies that specifically target the cancerous cells and spare all other cells.

This type of treatment is used in the treatment of patients with chronic myeloid leukaemia who are prescribed medications (such as imatinib and nilotinib) that target BCR-ABL (see above). The treatment stops the cells dividing, halting the progression of the leukaemia. Another example of targeted therapy is the use of antibodies that are created in the laboratory to specifically target the cancer cells. Patients diagnosed with pro-myelocytic leukaemia are also treated with targeted therapy, which includes the use of a vitamin A analogue and arsenic. These treatments prevent cancer cells from multiplying. 

Bone marrow

The spongy, vascular or fatty tissue found inside bones, responsible for producing blood cells.

Chemotherapy

A medication-based treatment, usually used in the treatment of cancers. There are numerous, different types of chemotherapy drugs that can be prescribed by a specialist. These can commonly be used alongside other cancer treatments such as surgery and radiotherapy.

Radiotherapy

A treatment that uses ionising radiation to kill or control growth of malignant cancer cells.

Remission

A partial or complete reversal of the course of illness, such as cancer or a chronic disease. Remission can be spontaneous or the result of therapy.

Vitamin A analogue

A substance that can function in a similar manner to vitamin A. Vitamin A analogues can be useful for treating certain cancers.

Arsenic

A naturally occurring toxic substance that can cause serious health problems. However, arsenic compounds can be cautiously used for treating certain cancers.

Potential complications

Treatment side effects

Chemotherapy side effects

Chemotherapy often results in nausea, vomiting, fatigue, constipation, hair loss and joint and muscle pain. Some chemotherapeutic agents can affect nerve function. It is important to tell your doctor if you develop these symptoms.

While undergoing chemotherapy, you will be prone to contracting infections, may bleed and bruise easily, experience weakness and fatigue, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. It is generally necessary to be in a single room during your hospital admission to minimise these complications.

In some cases, chemotherapy can result in development of another type of leukaemia, but the overall benefits of this treatment outweigh this risk.

In some cases, when you receive bone marrow from a donor, you can develop graft versus host disease (GVHD). This occurs when the donor cells attack your tissues and organs, commonly the skin, gut and liver. There are several strategies to control GVHD, and your doctor will discuss them with you if needed.

Complications of leukaemia

Recurrence

It is common for the cancer to return after remission

Infection

In leukaemia, the body produces many white blood cells, but they are immature and do not do a good job of protecting the body from infections, so people with leukaemia are more at risk of infection.

Bruising and anaemia

Because the bone marrow is producing too many white blood cells, the number of platelets or red blood cells is drastically reduced. This results in easy bruising as well as the development of anaemia

Anaemia

A deficiency in red blood cells or haemoglobin in the body.

Bone marrow

The spongy, vascular or fatty tissue found inside bones, responsible for producing blood cells.

Chemotherapy

A medication-based treatment, usually used in the treatment of cancers. There are numerous, different types of chemotherapy drugs that can be prescribed by a specialist. These can commonly be used alongside other cancer treatments such as surgery and radiotherapy.

Infections

Entry into the body of microorganisms that can reproduce and cause disease.

Remission

A partial or complete reversal of the course of illness, such as cancer or a chronic disease. Remission can be spontaneous or the result of therapy.

Prognosis

The prognosis of leukaemia varies greatly according to many factors, including:

  • The type of leukaemia;
  • The stage at which it was first diagnosed;
  • Age - younger people usually have a better prognosis, and;
  • How well the cancer responds to treatment.

Leukaemia, and particularly acute leukaemia, is a serious disease that can often be fatal, but the last decade has seen large advances in diagnosis and treatment of the disease, and the survival rates have improved dramatically.

If you have leukaemia, your doctor will discuss with you the likely outcomes of your treatment based on the specifics of your case.