Leukaemia Leukaemia
  • What is leukaemia?
  • What are the causes of leukaemia?
  • What are the symptoms of leukaemia?
  • How is leukaemia treated?

What is leukaemia?

Leukaemia, also spelt as leukaemia, is a type of blood cancer that occurs when there is a rapid growth of abnormal white blood cells in the bone marrow.

This condition involves white blood cells, which are an important part of the immune system that fight infections. Leukaemia happens when abnormalities cause the bone marrow to make immature white blood cells (leukaemia cells) that outnumber and crowd out the healthy cells. Leukaemia can be either acute (worsens quickly) or chronic (worsens slowly).

The types of leukaemia are:

  • Acute myeloid leukaemia – common in both children and adults, and is the most common type of acute leukaemia in adults.
  • Acute lymphocytic leukaemia – most common in young children.
  • Chronic myeloid leukaemia – mainly affects adults, and may display few or no symptoms for months or even years.
  • Chronic lymphocytic leukaemia – a common type of chronic leukaemia in adults.
  • Hairy cell leukaemias and large granular lymphocyte – rarer types of leukaemias.

What are the causes of leukaemia?

Leukaemia is generally thought to be caused by mutations (changes) in the DNA of the blood cells, resulting in them not functioning normally.

The exact causes of leukaemia are not known. However, risk factors may include:

  • Family history of leukaemia.
  • Genetic disorders, such as Down’s syndrome.
  • Exposure to radiation, or chemicals such as benzene.
  • Having an impaired immune system (or people who take drugs that suppress their immune system).
  • Developing certain infections, including the Epstein-Barr virus and Helicobacter pylori infection.

Leukaemia can also develop in people who have received certain types of chemotherapy for previous cancer treatment.


What are the symptoms of leukaemia?

The early signs and symptoms of leukaemia may vary, depending on the type of leukaemia a person has. They may also be difficult to spot as they resemble other conditions. Common symptoms of leukaemia include:

  • Bleeding or bruising easily or tiny red spots on your skin.
  • Bone pain or tenderness.
  • Fever or chills.
  • Frequent infections.
  • Loss of appetite or weight loss.
  • Ongoing tiredness or weakness.
  • Shortness of breath or excessive sweating, especially at night.
  • Swollen lymph nodes (glands), large liver or spleen.

How is leukaemia treated?

Treatment options are dependent on the person's age and health, the type of leukaemia a person has had, and whether it has spread to other parts of the body, including the central nervous system.

Your doctor may recommend treatment options involving:

  • Bone marrow transplant
  • Biological therapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation therapy
  • Targeted therapy