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Leukemia

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The leukemia is called “lymphocytic” or “lymphoblastic” if the cancerous change takes place in a type of marrow cell that forms “lymphocytes.” The leukemia is called “myelogenous” or “myeloid” if the cell change takes place in a type of marrow cell that normally goes on to form red cells, some kinds of white cells and platelets.
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Content Preview
Understanding Leukemia
L E U K E M I A
LY M P H O M A
M Y E LO M A

Introduction
This booklet is for anyone interested in learning more about
leukemia. It explains the four main types of leukemia, how
leukemia is diagnosed, general methods of treatment, and how
The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society can help.
The progress that has been made in treating leukemia
gives patients and caregivers more hope than ever before.
Treatments may include drug therapy, monoclonal antibody
therapy, stem cell transplantation, and for some patients,
radiation therapy.
More information about each type of leukemia and specific
treatments is in the Society’s free booklets, including:
Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia: A Guide for Patients
and Families
Acute Myelogenous Leukemia: A Guide for Patients
and Families
Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia: A Guide for Patients
and Families
Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia: A Guide for Patients
and Families
Other free materials from the Society are listed on pages 17
and 18.
1 Questions? Contact an Information Specialist at The Leukemia
& Lymphoma Society at www.LLS.org or 800-955-4572.
L E U K E M I A
LY M P H O M A
M Y E LO M A

Inside This Booklet
What Is Leukemia?
3
How Does Leukemia Develop?
5
Who’s at Risk?
8
Signs and Symptoms
10
Diagnosis
12
Treatment
13
Social and Emotional Effects of Leukemia
16
We’re Here to Help
17
Definitions for Medical Terms that may be new
to readers begin on page 19.
This booklet from The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society is for
general information only. Additional disease and treatment-
specific information appears in several of the Society’s other free
publications. The Society does not give medical advice or
medical services.
This booklet was supported by Cooperative Agreement Number U58/CCU224200-03 from the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not
necessarily represent the official views of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

To order free booklets, contact The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society
2
at www.LLS.org or 800-955-4572.
L E U K E M I A
LY M P H O M A
M Y E LO M A

What Is Leukemia?
“Leukemia” is the general term for four different types of blood
cancer called:
Acute lymphocytic (lymphoblastic) leukemia (ALL)
Acute myelogenous (myeloid) leukemia (AML)
Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)
Chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML)
It is important to know that how patients are affected and
treated are not the same for each type of leukemia. These four
types of leukemia do have one thing in common – they begin in
a cell in the bone marrow. The cell undergoes a change and
becomes a type of leukemia cell.
Marrow is the spongy center of bones where
blood cells and lymphocytes are formed. Blood cells
begin as “stem” cells. The different types of cells made
in the marrow are red cells, platelets, lymphocytes and
several other types of white cells. These cells leave the
marrow and enter the blood once they are formed.
3 Questions? Contact an Information Specialist at The Leukemia
& Lymphoma Society at www.LLS.org or 800-955-4572.
L E U K E M I A
LY M P H O M A
M Y E LO M A

The marrow is really two organs in one. The first is the blood
cell-forming organ. This is the site where myelogenous leukemia
begins. The second is the lymphocyte-forming organ and is a
part of the immune system. It is the site where lymphocytic
leukemia begins.
The leukemia is called “lymphocytic” or “lymphoblastic” if the
cancerous change takes place in a type of marrow cell that forms
“lymphocytes.” The leukemia is called “myelogenous” or
“myeloid” if the cell change takes place in a type of marrow cell
that normally goes on to form red cells, some kinds of white cells
and platelets.
The ways in which patients are affected and how they are treated
are different for each type of leukemia.
“Acute lymphocytic leukemia” and “acute myelogenous
leukemia” are each composed of young cells, known as
“lymphoblasts” or “myeloblasts.” These cells are sometimes
called “blasts.” Acute leukemias progress rapidly without
treatment.
“Chronic” leukemias have few or no blast cells. “Chronic
lymphocytic leukemia” and “chronic myelogenous leukemia”
usually progress slowly compared to acute leukemias.
To order free booklets, contact The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society
at www.LLS.org or 800-955-4572.
4
L E U K E M I A
LY M P H O M A
M Y E LO M A

How Does Leukemia Develop?
Doctors do not know the causes of most cases of leukemia. They
do know that once the marrow cell undergoes a “leukemic”
change, it multiplies into many cells. These leukemia cells grow
and survive better than normal cells and, over time, they crowd
out normal cells.
Normal stem cells in the marrow form three main
cell-types. Red cells carry oxygen to all the tissues
of the body, such as the heart, lung and brain;
platelets prevent bleeding and form “plugs” that help
stop bleeding after an injury; and white cells fight
infection in the body.
There are two major types of white cells: germ-ingesting
cells (neutrophils and monocytes) and lymphocytes,
which provide immunity to infection.
The rate at which leukemia progresses and how the cells replace
the normal blood and marrow cells are different with each type
of leukemia.
5 Questions? Contact an Information Specialist at The Leukemia
& Lymphoma Society at www.LLS.org or 800-955-4572.
L E U K E M I A
LY M P H O M A
M Y E LO M A

In acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) and acute lymphocytic
leukemia (ALL), the original acute leukemia cell goes on to
form about a trillion more leukemia cells. These cells are
described as “nonfunctional” because they do not work like
normal cells. They also crowd out the normal cells in the
marrow; in turn, this causes a decrease in the number of new
normal cells made in the marrow. This further results in low red
cell counts (anemia).
In chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), the leukemia cell
that starts the disease makes blood cells (red cells, white cells
and platelets) that function almost like normal cells. The number
of red cells is usually less than normal, resulting in anemia. But
many white cells and sometimes many platelets are still made.
Even though the white cells are nearly normal in how they work,
their counts are high and continue to rise. This can cause serious
problems if the patient does not get treatment. If untreated, the
white cell count can rise so high that blood flow slows down
and anemia becomes severe.
Having too few red cells is called “anemia.” It can make
a person look pale and feel tired and short of breath.
To order free booklets, contact The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society
at www.LLS.org or 800-955-4572.
6
L E U K E M I A
LY M P H O M A
M Y E LO M A

In chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), the leukemia cell that
starts the disease makes too many lymphocytes that do not
function. These cells replace normal cells in the marrow and
lymph nodes. They interfere with the work of normal
lymphocytes, which weakens the patient’s immune response. The
high number of leukemia cells in the marrow may crowd out
normal blood-forming cells and lead to a low red cell count
(anemia). A very high number of leukemia cells building up in
the marrow also can lead to low white cell (neutrophil) and
platelet counts.
Unlike the other three types of leukemia, some patients with
CLL may have disease that does not progress for a long time.
Some people with CLL have such slight changes that they
remain in good health and do not need treatment for long
periods of time. Most patients require treatment at the time of
diagnosis or soon after.
Estimated number of people in the United States
diagnosed each year:
AML about 12,000 CLL about 10,000
CML about 4,500 ALL about 4,000
About 208,000 people in the United States are living
with leukemia.
7 Questions? Contact an Information Specialist at The Leukemia
& Lymphoma Society at www.LLS.org or 800-955-4572.
L E U K E M I A
LY M P H O M A
M Y E LO M A

Who’s at Risk?
People can get leukemia at any age. It is most common in people
over age 60. The most common types in adults are AML and
CLL. Each year, about 3,500 children develop leukemia. ALL is
the most common form of leukemia in children.
The term “risk factor” is used to describe something that may
increase the chance that a person will develop leukemia.
For most types of leukemia, the risk factors and possible causes
are not known. For AML, specific risk factors have been found,
but most people with AML do not have these risk factors.
Most people who have these risk factors do not get
leukemia – and most people with leukemia do not have
these risk factors.
To order free booklets, contact The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society
8
at www.LLS.org or 800-955-4572.
L E U K E M I A
LY M P H O M A
M Y E LO M A

Some risk factors for AML are:
• Certain chemotherapies used for lymphoma or other types of
cancer
• Down syndrome and some other genetic diseases
• Chronic exposure to benzene (such as in the workplace) that
exceeds federally approved safety limits
• Radiation therapy used to treat other types of cancer
• Tobacco smoke.
Exposure to high doses of radiation therapy is also a risk factor
for ALL and CML. Other possible risk factors for the four types of
leukemia are continually under study. Leukemia is not contagious
(catching).
Questions? Contact an Information Specialist at The Leukemia
9 & Lymphoma Society at www.LLS.org or 800-955-4572.
L E U K E M I A
LY M P H O M A
M Y E LO M A

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