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What is Leukemia?
May 02 , 2013

Leukemia is a type of blood cancer that affects blood forming cells. It begins in the bone marrow; the soft tissue inside most bones and is characterized by an abnormal increase of immature white blood cells called "blasts". These abnormal cells do not do the work of normal white blood cells; they grow faster than normal cells, and do not stop growing when they should. Leukemia is a treatable disease. Most treatments involve chemotherapy, medical radiation therapy, or hormone treatments. 

Type of Leukemia

There are four main types of leukemia. The stages for most cancers are based on the size of the tumors and how far those tumors are from the original site of the cancer. Leukemia, by its very nature, spreads throughout the body almost instantly in the marrow of bones.  Most forms of leukemia spread to other organs of the body at an alarming rate, making staging impractical.  

- Acute myelogenous leukemia (AML): This develops from myeloid cells and occurs more commonly in adults than in children, and more commonly in men than women. AML is treated with chemotherapy. 

- Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML):  This divided into three phases. 

Chronic Phase:  This phase is characterized by 5% blasts (cancerous cells) in the blood and bone marrow samples, very mild symptoms are experienced and patients respond well to treatment.

Accelerated Phase:  In this phase is characterized by more than 5% but less than 30% blasts in the blood and bone marrow samples.  Most patients in the accelerated phase suffer from loss of appetite and weight loss and do not respond so well to treatments. 

Acute Blast Phase: In this phase patients have more than 30% blast cells and the cancer has spread from the bone marrow to other organs.  Patients in the Acute Blast Phase must now deal with an extremely aggressive form of the disease.  Other forms of leukemia have slight differences in their staging, but most follow the same basic pattern as CML. 

CML occurs mainly in adults; a very small number of children also develop this disease. Treatment is with imatinib.

-  Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL): This develops from early blast cells. They build up in the blood, leaving less room for healthy blood cells. It is the most common type of leukemia in young children, also affecting adults, especially 65yrs and older. Standard treatments involve chemotherapy and radiotherapy. 

- Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL): Here most leukemic cells come from mature abnormal cells. The cells thrive and accumulate. It often affects adults above 55yrs. It sometimes occurs in younger adults, but it almost never affects children. Two-thirds of affected people are men. 

Other types of leukemia includes: Hairy cell leukemia, Adult T-cell leukemia, T-cell prolymphocytic leukemia, Large granular lymphocytic leukemia.


Common symptoms include:

- frequent infection, ranging from infected tonsils, sores in the mouth, or diarrhea to life-threatening pneumonia or opportunistic infections.

- Fever and night sweats

- Headache

- Easy bruising 

- Bone and/or joint pain

- Abdominal pain due to splenomegaly

- Body weakness and weight loss

Survival Rates

ALL: The survival rates vary by age: About 85% in children and 50% in adults.

CLL: The five-year survival rate is about 75%. It is incurable, but there are many effective treatments

AML: The five-year survival rate is about 40%.

CML: The five-year survival rate is about 90%.


This is done by repeated complete blood counts and a bone marrow examination following observations of the symptoms.


Includes pharmaceutical medication, chemotherapy regimen, radiation therapy and in some cases, a bone marrow transplant.


American Cancer Society (22 March 2012). "Typical treatment of acute myeloid leukemia (except promyelocytic M3)". Detailed Guide: Leukemia - Acute Myeloid (AML). American Cancer Society. Retrieved 31 Oct 2012.

"Do We Know What Causes Leukemia". Detailed Guide: Leukemia. American Cancer Society. 2010. Retrieved 18 May 2010.

Elaine Sarkin Jaffe, Nancy Lee Harris, World Health Organization, International Agency for Research on Cancer, Harald Stein, J. W.

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