Unlike many cancers, leukemia rarely forms solid tumors. Instead, leukemia is cancer of the bone marrow and blood.
In people with leukemia, the bone marrow produces abnormal (leukemic) blood cells.
To understand leukemia, it helps to know the basics about your bone marrow and blood cells.
Stem cells are cells in your body that have the potential to turn into any kind of cell, such as a skin cell, liver cell, brain cell or blood cell. Stem cells that turn into blood cells are called hematopoietic stem cells, or blood stem cells.
When blood cells become old or damaged, they die, and blood stem cells produce new blood cells to replace them. Blood stem cells are mainly found in bone marrow (the soft, spongy tissue inside your bones), but some are also found in circulating blood.
Blood stem cells produce lymphoid stem cells and myeloid stem cells.
Healthy white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets are essential.
Leukemias are named for the type of blood stem cell — lymphoid or myeloid — that is affected and how quickly the disease develops and progresses.
There are four main types of leukemia in adults.
There are several other types of leukemia and related blood disorders, such as hairy cell leukemia and chronic myelomonocytic leukemia.
Leukemias are further grouped into subtypes, phases and risk categories based on:
Your doctor uses this information, along with other factors, such as your age, your general health and your sex, to plan your treatment and predict the outcome.
For acute leukemia, many of the early signs are similar to the flu or other common, less serious diseases.
In the early stages, chronic leukemia usually doesn’t cause symptoms, and it may take years before symptoms develop.
Check with your physician if you have any of these.
It is important to receive care at a specialized center with expertise in treating your specific type of leukemia.
Fred Hutch experts offer comprehensive leukemia care, including advanced treatments and new options available only through clinical studies
If your physician suspects you may have leukemia, they will want to perform a thorough physical examination and talk with you about your medical history. During the exam, your physician will check for signs of leukemia, such as swollen or enlarged lymph nodes or spleen.
An accurate diagnosis of leukemia requires several tests. You might have any or all of these:
About 62,000 people are diagnosed with leukemia in the United States each year. More than 90 percent are adults over age 20.
Doctors do not know what causes some blood cells to become leukemic. Often changes or mutations in specific genes or chromosomes are seen in people with leukemia.
For most people with leukemia, there are no obvious reasons why they developed the disease. Some factors that may increase risk include:
Race, ethnicity, sex and age also influence risk.
Keep in mind that most people who develop leukemia have no risk factors, and most people with the risk factors do not develop the disease.
There are many resources online for learning about your disease. Health educators at the Fred Hutch Patient and Family Resource Center have compiled a list of trusted sources to help you get started.
Whether you are newly diagnosed, going through treatment or know someone with cancer, our staff are available to tailor personalized resources and answer questions about support options in the community.
Overview of Leukemia from the American Cancer Society (ACS)
If you have leukemia or are close to someone who does, knowing what to expect can be helpful. Here you can find out all about leukemia in adults, including risk factors, symptoms, and how they are found and treated.
Overview of Leukemia from the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society
If you have leukemia, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) is a good place to start to better understand your diagnosis, treatment and support options.
Leukemia: General Information & Support from CancerCare
CancerCare provides free, professional support services for people affected by leukemia, as well as leukemia treatment information and additional resources, including financial and co-pay assistance.
The Aplastic Anemia and MDS International Foundation, Inc.
The Aplastic Anemia and MDS International Foundation, Inc. website gives medical information, patient advocacy and support for bone marrow diseases that include aplastic anemia (AA), myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) and paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria (PNH).
Cancer Lifeline provides emotional support, resources, education classes and exercise programs designed to support people with cancer, caregivers and family members.
CancerCare: Blood Cancers Support Group
CancerCare offers an online blood cancers support group.
CLL Society, Inc.
CLL Society Inc., is a patient–centric, physician–curated nonprofit organization focused on patient education, support and research.
The MDS information network provides patients with referrals to Centers of Excellence, contact names for available clinical trials, sharing of new research and treatment options between physicians, and extension of educational support to physicians, nurses, pharmacists and patients.