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Health > Leukemia


Leukemia Fact Sheet

Leukemia is cancer of the blood which may start in the bone marrow or the lymph system. White blood cells do not reproduce themselves but after living for a few days or weeks, they are replaced by new cells. Leukemia affects this process in two ways. Firstly, the leukaemic cells do not ever mature into blood cells which are able to fight infection. Secondly, too many of these cells are produced. Eventually the overproduction of these cells causes the bone marrow to become clogged, (the bone marrow is where billions of new blood cells are produced everyday - more red than white) then they spill into the blood and invade the lymph system, liver and spleen. The production of normal red and white blood cells is reduced as the bone marrow is clogged. In fact, eventually the body does not have enough red cells to supply oxygen, or platelets for proper clotting, or enough normal white cells to fight infection, making people with leukemia anaemic and susceptible to such things as bruising, bleeding and infection.
Leukemia, is different from other cancers in that it does not produce tumours.

What to look for…

Leukemia can be classified as acute or chronic. In acute leukemias, cancer cells start multiplying excessively before they become mature cells. While chronic leukemias develop more slowly, with cancer cells progressing to full maturity. Leukemias are further classified according to the type of white blood cell involved. Acute lymphocytic, (childhood leukemia), is the most common type of cancer in children; acute myelogenic leukemia is the most common leukemia in adults. Without treatment, acute leukemias can be fatal within a short period of time. The effectiveness of treatment depends on the type of disease and the stage it is at, however, the younger the patient, the greater the chances of remission. (In leukemia, remission means that no more cancerous cells are present and the bone marrow seems normal).

Chronic leukemias usually affect adults. Chronic lymphocytic leukemia is the most benign, slowly progressing type. It may be controlled effectively with medication. Chronic myelogenic leukemia develops faster and with more force. Average survival time is about four years as it is more difficult to halt its progression.

Unfortunately, there are many types of leukemia that do not produce obvious symptoms in early stages. Eventually once the bone marrow becomes affected, symptoms may include any of the following:

  • Anaemia - fatigue and generally feeling unwell.
  • Bruising or bleeding easily, this includes bleeding from the gums or nose, or blood in the stool or urine.
  • Swollen lymph nodes, typically in the throat, armpits or groin.
  • Susceptibility to many types of infections (including respiratory).
  • Loss of appetite and weight.
  • Discomfort or a lump under the left lower ribs.

In advanced stages, symptoms become more severe and may include such things as high fevers coming on suddenly, confusion, seizures, inability to talk, difficulty moving arms or legs.


The cause is unknown but with acute leukemia, researchers believe that it maybe the result of a virus. It is believed that the onset of a viral infection may change the vulnerability of certain people or may even change the surface structure of the immune cells that fight infection. Some also believe it could be genetic. Heavy exposure to atomic radiation or an element in petrol has been linked to incidences of leukemia.

Other factors that may increase the risk of leukemia include smoking, exposure to various chemicals and also exposure to low frequency electromagnetic fields (however the proof is not available at this time).

Traditional Treatment

Treatment is with modern equipment and medications. Being diagnosed with leukemia is not necessarily a death sentence and with advances in medical science it is possible to cure certain types of leukemia and significantly extend the life expectancy in others. Childhood leukemia cases are the most successful due to advances in medicine. The treatment goal with leukemia is usually remission. Chemotherapy is usually undertaken for several weeks. Your doctors will advise on the types of drugs and other treatments that will need to be undertaken in addition to the chemotherapy.

With some forms of leukemia, the best chances for survival are to obtain a bone marrow transplant.


No applicable

When to Seek Further Professional Advice

  • You notice any of the symptoms listed above it is imperative that you see your doctor immediately.

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