Leukemia is a type of cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow, the spongy tissue inside bones where blood cells are made. It is characterized by the rapid production of abnormal white blood cells (WBCs), which are not fully developed and do not function properly. These abnormal cells can accumulate in the blood and bone marrow, crowding out normal cells and leading to symptoms such as anemia, infection, and bleeding problems.

Common types of leukemia

Leukemia is classified into several types, but the most common ones are:

  • Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL): This type affects lymphoid cells and progresses quickly. It is the most common type of leukemia in children, but it can also affect adults. Subtypes of ALL include T-lymphoblastic leukemia (T-ALL) and B-lymphoblastic leukemia (B-ALL).
  • Acute myeloid leukemia (AML): AML affects myeloid cells and progresses rapidly. It is more common in adults than in children.
  • Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL): CLL affects lymphoid cells but progresses more slowly than acute leukemias. It is most common in older adults.
  • Chronic myeloid leukemia (CML): CML affects myeloid cells and usually progresses slowly at first. It is more common in adults.

What are the symptoms of leukemia?

Common symptoms of leukemia arise from the disease’s impact on the body’s ability to produce healthy blood cells. These symptoms can vary depending on the type of leukemia, but generally include:

  • Fatigue and weakness: Caused by anemia, a condition in which there is a shortage of red blood cells that carry oxygen throughout the body.
  • Fever or chills: Patients may experience fevers or chills as a result of infections, due to a decrease in normal white blood cells that fight infection.
  • Frequent Infections: Leukemia impairs the body’s immune system, making it more susceptible to infections.
  • Easy bruising or bleeding: A decrease in platelets, which help with blood clotting, can lead to bruising more easily, bleeding gums, nosebleeds, or other unusual bleeding.
  • Petechiae: Small red spots on the skin, a result of tiny bleeds under the skin due to low platelet counts.
  • Weight loss: Unexplained weight loss can occur even without changes in diet or exercise.
  • Swollen lymph nodes: Leukemia cells can accumulate in lymph nodes, leading to swelling, particularly in the neck, armpit, or groin.
  • Enlarged liver or spleen: The liver and spleen may enlarge as they become infiltrated with leukemia cells, possibly causing pain or fullness in the abdomen.
  • Bone or joint pain: Leukemia cells can accumulate in the bone marrow, leading to pain in bones or joints.
  • Night sweats: Excessive sweating during the night can be a symptom of leukemia.
  • Pallor: A noticeable paleness of the skin due to reduced red blood cell count.

It’s important to note that these symptoms are not exclusive to leukemia and can be associated with various other health conditions. If someone experiences persistent or multiple symptoms from this list, it is crucial to consult a doctor for evaluation. Early diagnosis and treatment can significantly affect the outcome of leukemia.

How is leukemia diagnosed?

Diagnosing leukemia typically involves several steps and tests:

  • Medical history and physical examination: The doctor will assess your symptoms, review your medical history, and perform a physical exam to look for signs of leukemia, such as an enlarged spleen or liver, and lymph node swelling.
  • Blood tests: A complete blood count (CBC) is often the first test done. It can show abnormal levels of white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets, which may suggest leukemia. A blood smear may also be performed to look at the shapes of blood cells.
  • Bone marrow biopsy: A sample of bone marrow is taken, usually from the hip bone, and examined under a microscope to look for leukemia cells. This test is crucial for confirming the diagnosis and determining the specific type of leukemia.
  • Imaging tests: X-rays, CT scans, or MRIs may be used to check for swollen lymph nodes or other signs of disease in different parts of the body.
  • Flow cytometry and molecular testing: These tests analyze the characteristics of cancer cells, such as the types of proteins they express and genetic changes. They help to classify leukemia further and can guide treatment decisions.
  • Cytogenetic analysis: This involves looking at the chromosomes of cells from samples of blood or bone marrow to identify any genetic abnormalities associated with different types of leukemia.

The diagnosis and classification of leukemia are critical for determining the most effective treatment strategy, as treatments vary significantly among different types and subtypes of leukemia.

About this article

Doctors wrote this article to help you read and understand your pathology report. Contact us if you have questions about this article or your pathology report. For a complete introduction to your pathology report, read this article.

Other helpful resources

Atlas of pathology
A+ A A-