What is Leukemia?

Updated at: Jan 21, 2013
What is Leukemia?

Disorder in white blood formation leads to leukemia, which can be fatal.


Dr Poonam Sachdev
CancerWritten by: Dr Poonam SachdevPublished at: Nov 29, 2011

What is leukemia

Leukemia is a type of cancer that starts in the blood cells. The term “leukemia” is derived from the Greek words “leukos” meaning white” and “haima” meaning blood.  Blood contains three types of cells.

  • White blood cells: These cells help to fight infection. There are different types of white blood cells such as neutrophils lymphocytes, basophils, eosinophil and monocytes.
  • Red blood cells: These cells carry oxygen to all the tissues in the body. The protein hemoglobin present in the red blood cells transports oxygen to the tissues.
  • Platelets: These cells help to control bleeding by forming blood clots.

The blood cells are formed in the bone marrow by the stem cells. Bone marrow is the soft material present inside the center of the bones. Stem cells are undifferentiated cells, which can divide and grow to form the different types of blood cells. The old and damaged blood cells die and are replaced by new cells. The rate at which the blood cells are formed from stem cells depends on the need of the body.

In leukemia, the regulated and well controlled formation of white blood cells from bone marrow is disturbed; this causes the stem cells to make abnormal white blood cells: the leukemia cells. Unlike the healthy white blood cells, leukemia cells don't function appropriately (protect against infections) and do not die when they should. When more than required white blood cells are formed, they crowd out normal white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets and thereby, prevent their effective functioning;  this makes people with leukemia vulnerable to the development of symptoms such as infections, anemia and bleeding. Other symptoms and signs of leukemia include easy bruising, weight loss, night sweats and unexplained fever.

The exact cause of leukemia is not understood, but many factors are known to increase the risk of leukemia. Some factors that increase the risk of leukemia are:

  • Age: people older than 60 years (even younger people can get leukemia).
  • History of previous chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
  • Infection with the human T-cell leukemia virus.
  • Myelodysplasctic syndrome (a type of blood disorder).
  • Down syndrome.

There are several types of leukemia. They are classified on the basis of how quickly the disease progresses and the type of blood cell that is affected (lymphocytes or myelocytes). Based on the progress of the disease, leukemia is classified either as:

  • Chronic: Type of leukemia that worsens slowly.
  • Acute: Type of leukemia that worsens quickly.

The four major types of leukemia are:

  • Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL),
  • Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL),
  • Acute myelocytic leukemia (AML),
  • Chronic myelocytic leukemia (CML).

If leukemia is suspected, your doctor will take a sample of your blood and bone marrow. These samples are examined under a microscope for abnormal blood cells. Treatment for leukemia is decided based on factors such as type of leukemia, characteristic of the leukemia cells, the extent of the disease, and prior history of treatment, age and health of the patient. Advances in the treatment of the disease have improved the prognosis considerably.


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