Leukemia

Leukemia is a form of blood cancer that impedes the normal production of white blood cells in the bone marrow. In leukemia, abnormal cells crowd out healthy cells, affecting their ability to fight infection. There are four main types of the disease. Acute leukemias are the most common cancer in children, but in general, leukemia is more common in older adults.

While an exact cause of leukemia is unknown, risk factors include genetics, smoking, radiation, and environmental exposures. Signs and symptoms include frequent infections, anemia, bruising, and weight loss.

Extensive testing is needed to confirm a diagnosis of leukemia. Treatment is based on the type of disease and may include chemotherapy, a stem cell transplant, and other approaches.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What causes leukemia?

    The exact cause of leukemia is not known, but risk factors for the disease include some infections, exposures to radiation or to chemicals such as benzene and pesticides, previous chemotherapy treatment, and certain genetic conditions.

  • Is leukemia a curable disease?

    There are several different types of leukemia, and each has a different prognosis. When leukemia stays in remission for five years, some doctors consider that it has been cured. As of 2016, the overall five-year survival rate for all types of leukemia was 63.7%.

  • Is leukemia genetic?

    The role of genetics and family history varies according to the type of leukemia. For example, acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) does not tend to run in families. With chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), on the other hand, those with a first-degree family member who have had CLL have more than twice the risk of developing the disease themselves. 

  • What are the signs and symptoms of leukemia?

    Symptoms can vary according to the type of leukemia, but may include unexplained fevers, abnormal bruising, anemia, swollen lymph nodes, frequent infections, abdominal pain, and bone and joint pain. 

  • How is leukemia diagnosed?

    Several tests may be involved in diagnosing leukemia, including blood tests, a bone marrow biopsy, lumbar puncture, and flow cytometry. One of the most important tests in determining the specific type of leukemia is a peripheral smear, in which a blood sample is smeared on a slide with a dye and placed under a microscope. This allows for a detailed picture of the blood cells.

Key Terms

Page Sources
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  1. National Cancer Institute. Leukemia.

  2. Davis AS, Viera AJ, Mead MD. Leukemia: an overview for primary care. Am Fam Physician. 2014;89(9):731-8.

  3. Shephard EA, Neal RD, Rose PW, Walter FM, Hamilton W. Symptoms of adult chronic and acute leukaemia before diagnosis: large primary care case-control studies using electronic records. Br J Gen Pract. 2016;66(644):e182–e188. doi:10.3399/bjgp16X683989

  4. Talati C, Sweet K. Recently approved therapies in acute myeloid leukemia: A complex treatment landscape. Leuk Res. 2018;73:58-66. doi:10.1016/j.leukres.2018.09.001

Additional Reading