Leukaemia

There are four types of leukaemia, mostly affecting adults. However, some types of leukaemia can affect children.

What is leukaemia?

Leukaemia is cancer that usually starts in the stem cells in the bone marrow. Stem cells are primitive cells that make different kinds of blood cells.

These include:

  • Myeloid stem cells which produce red blood cells, platelets and some kinds of white blood cell – these cause myeloid leukaemias
  • Lymphoid stem cells which produce white blood cells called B cells or T cells – these cause lymphoblastic leukaemias

Childhood leukaemia

Leukaemia is one of the most common childhood cancers. It affects more boys than girls – usually when they are aged 2-5. Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) is the most common type affecting children. Other types include myeloid leukaemia and chronic myeloid leukaemia (which is very rare).

Children are more likely to get leukaemia if they have:

  • Down’s syndrome
  • A disease that affects the immune system
  • A sibling with leukaemia
  • Had exposure to radiation during early childhood or during the mother’s pregnancy
  • It’s thought that mothers who drink heavily while pregnancy may also put their child at additional risk of leukaemia

Adult leukaemia

Leukaemia affects more men than women and is more common if you’re aged over 45. The risk increases as you get older, with most cases affecting people aged over 85.

You’re more likely to get leukaemia if you:

  • Have a family history of leukaemia
  • Are a smoker
  • Have been exposed to high levels of radiation
  • Are affected by genetic conditions such as Down’s Syndrome and Fanconi anaemia
  • Have had radiation therapy or chemotherapy treatment
  • Have been in contact with certain chemicals including benzene

There are four types of leukaemia in adults:

  1. Chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL)

    the most common type, mainly affecting people over 60

  2. Acute myeloid leukaemia (AML)

    the second most common adult leukaemia. It usually affects people aged over 60

  3. Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL)

    less common than CLL or AML. It mainly affects people aged 15-25 or over 75

  4. Chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML)

    a rarer type of leukaemia. It mainly affects people aged 40-60

Symptoms of leukaemia

  • Feeling generally unwell, tired and lacking in energy
  • Pale complexion
  • Frequent infections with a raised temperature
  • Headaches
  • Losing weight and appetite
  • Night sweats
  • Pain in your bones or joints
  • Unusual bruising or heavy bleeding

The main treatment for leukemias involves some form of chemotherapy. Your specialist doctor will advise you on the most appropriate regime. Some slowly progressive leukemias such as CLL may only require surveillance.

Tests and diagnosis

Your doctor will discuss your symptoms and carry out a thorough examination. Tests may include:

  • Blood tests
  • X-ray
  • Lumbar puncture
  • Scans including CT, MRI or ultrasound
  • Taking a sample of bone marrow or the lymph node for biopsy
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Springfield Cancer Centre, Lawn Lane, Chelmsford, CM1 7GU

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The Park Centre for oncology, Sherwood Lodge Drive, Burntstump Country Park, Nottingham, NG5 8RX

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