Leukemia is a cancer of the blood cells. In cancer, cells become abnormal and grow out of control. Abnormal blood cells increase and outnumber healthy blood cells.

There are three main types of blood cells. Each has a distinct job:

  • White blood cells (WBC), also called lymphocytes, are most often involved in leukemia. Their main job is to help the immune system.
  • Red blood cells (RBC) carry oxygen throughout the body.
  • Platelets help the blood clot at injury sites. 

Leukemia cells cannot do the job of normal blood cells. This causes many of the symptoms of leukemia. The disease starts in the bone marrow where blood cells are made. The most common types of leukemia are:

Risk Factors for Leukemia 

These factors may add to your risk for getting leukemia.

  • Age — leukemia is most common in people over 60
  • AML and CLL are most common in adults
  • ALL is most common in children
  • Chemotherapy for previous cancer
  • Some genetic diseases such as Down syndrome
  • Chronic exposure to benzene that exceeds federally-approved safety limits
  • Radiation therapy from previous therapy
  • Myelodysplastic syndrome — a blood disease; increases risk for AML
  • Exposure to tobacco smoke 


Tell your doctor if you have any of these symptoms:

  • Fever or night sweats
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Minor cuts that heal slowly
  • Excessive reaction to insect bites
  • Feeling weak or tired
  • Headache
  • Pale skin
  • Bleeding and bruising easily
  • Nosebleeds
  • Bleeding gums
  • Tiny red spots under the skin

Excess leukemia cells can gather in different parts of the body and organs, creating:

  • Pain in the bones or joints
  • Puffy gums
  • Rash
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Swelling of testicles
  • Swelling or discomfort in the abdomen (from enlarged spleen)
  • Swollen lymph nodes (particularly in neck or armpit)
  • Weight loss
  • Meningitis with headache, nausea, loss of muscle control, seizures, symptoms of stroke

Diagnosing Leukemia

Your doctor will check for swelling of the liver, spleen, or lymph nodes in the armpits, groin, and neck. He or she may run the following tests:

  • Blood tests
  • Bone marrow aspiration and biopsy

These tests can tell you if the cancer has spread and its location:

  • Chest X-rays
  • CT scan
  • Lumbar puncture
  • MRI scan
  • Ultrasound
  • Positron emission tomography (PET)


  • Options include the following:
    • Medication — your doctor will tell you which medications may be able to treat your leukemia
    • Chemotherapy
    • Radiation therapy
  • Procedures
    • Blood transfusions
    • Bone marrow transplant
    • Splenectomy
    • Immunotherapy


To help reduce your chance of getting leukemia, take the following steps:

  • Avoid exposure to benzene.
  • Avoid exposure to high levels of radiation when possible.
  • If you smoke, quit.

Content was created using EBSCO’s Health Library. Edits to original content made by Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice.