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What is leukemia?

Leukemia is cancer that starts in the tissue that forms blood. To understand cancer, it helps to know how normal blood cells form.

Normal Blood Cells

Most blood cells develop from cells in the bone marrow called stem cells. Bone marrow is the soft material in the center of most bones.

Stem cells mature into different kinds of blood cells. Each kind has a special job.

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White blood cells help fight infection. There are several types of white blood cells.

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Red blood cells carry oxygen to tissues throughout the body.

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Platelets help form blood clots that control bleeding.

White blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets are made from stem cells as the body needs them. When cells grow old or get damaged, they die, and new cells take their place.

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The picture below shows how stem cells can mature into different types of white blood cells. First, a stem cell matures into either a myeloid stem cell or a lymphoid stem cell : -
  • A myeloid stem cell matures into a myeloid blast. The blast can form a red blood cell, platelets, or one of several types of white blood cells.
  • A lymphoid stem cell matures into a lymphoid blast. The blast can form one of several types of white blood cells, such as B cells or T cells.
The white blood cells that form from myeloid blasts are different from the white blood cells that form from lymphoid blasts.

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Leukemia Cells

In a person with leukemia, the bone marrow makes abnormal white blood cells. The abnormal cells are leukemia cells.

Unlike normal blood cells, leukemia cells don't die when they should. They may crowd out normal white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. This makes it hard for normal blood cells to do their work.

Types of Leukemia

The types of leukemia can be grouped based on how quickly the disease develops and gets worse.
  • Chronic leukemia
  • Acute leukemia

There are four common types of leukemia: -
  • Chronic lymphocytic leukemia
  • Chronic myeloid leukemia
  • Acute lymphocytic (lymphoblastic) leukemia
  • Acute myeloid leukemia

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Some other related symptoms : -
  • Fever, chills, night sweats and other flu-like symptoms
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Loss of appetite and/or weight
  • Swollen or bleeding gums
  • Excess bleeding (from a minor cut)
  • Neurological symptoms (headache)
  • Enlarged liver and spleen
  • Easy bruising
  • Frequent infection
  • Bone pain
  • Joint pain
  • Swollen tonsils

The word leukemia, which means 'white blood,' is derived from the disease's namesake high white blood cell counts that most leukemia patients have before treatment. The high number of white blood cells are apparent when a blood sample is viewed under a microscope.

How is chronic lymphocytic leukaemia diagnosed?

Often the condition is diagnosed by chance when blood tests are being performed for other reasons.

Although a blood test may give doctors the diagnosis, a bone marrow test is usually done to confirm the diagnosis. Special tests are performed on these samples to help classify the leukaemia as this will influence the kind of treatment required.

Scans and X-rays may also be performed in order to help doctors decide on the best treatment.


People with leukemia have many treatment options. The options are watchful waiting, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, biological therapy, radiation therapy, and stem cell transplant. If your spleen is enlarged, your doctor may suggest surgery to remove it. Sometimes a combination of these treatments is used.

The choice of treatment depends mainly on the following: -
  • The type of leukemia (acute or chronic)
  • Your age
  • Whether leukemia cells were found in your cerebrospinal fluid
It also may depend on certain features of the leukemia cells. Your doctor also considers your symptoms and general health.

People with acute leukemia need to be treated right away. The goal of treatment is to destroy signs of leukemia in the body and make symptoms go away. This is called a remission. After people go into remission, more therapy may be given to prevent a relapse. This type of therapy is called consolidation therapy or maintenance therapy. Many people with acute leukemia can be cured.

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