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Is Leukemia a Cancer?

Cancer is a process of uncontrolled abnormal cell growth and development. Under normal circumstances, cells are formed, mature, carry out their intended function, and then die. New cells are constantly regenerated in the body to replace those cells and to maintain normal cellular function.

Cancer represents the disturbance of this process, which can occur in several ways.

Cells may grow and reproduce in a disorganized and out-of-control fashion. Cells may fail to develop properly, so they will not function normally. Cells may fail to die normally. One or a combination of these processes may occur when cells become cancerous.

Leukemia is a cancer of blood-forming cells in the bone marrow. These deranged, immature cells accumulate in the blood and within organs of the body. They are not able to carry out the normal functions of blood cells.

Normal blood contains white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. All three types of blood elements develop from one immature cell type, called blood/marrow stem cells, in a process called hematopoiesis.

  • These stem cells divide and develop into a more developed, but still immature precursor, called a blast, which then develops through several more stages, into a mature blood cell.
  • This process takes place in the bone marrow, which is the soft spongy material found in the center of most bones.

Each type of blood element has its own different and essential function in the body.

  • White blood cells (leukocytes) are part of the immune system and help fight a variety of infections. They also help in the healing of wounds, cuts, and sores.
  • Red blood cells (erythrocytes) contain hemoglobin, which carries oxygen to, and removes carbon dioxide from, the cells throughout the various organs of the body.
  • Platelets, along with certain plasma proteins, help form clots once blood vessels are damaged or cut.

The first step in the process of stem cell maturation is differentiation into two groups: the myeloid stem cell line and the lymphoid stem cell line.

  • The myeloid stem cells, or lineage, develop into red blood cells, platelets, and certain types of white blood cells (granulocytes or monocytes).
  • The lymphoid stem cells, or lineage, develop into another type of white blood cell (lymphocytes).
  • Either lineage can be affected by leukemia. Leukemias that affect the myeloid lineage are called myelocytic (also myelogenous, myeloblastic, or nonlymphocytic) leukemias. Leukemias that affect the lymphoid lineage are called lymphocytic (also lymphoblastic or lymphogenous) leukemias.

Each of the two major types of leukemia, myelogenous and lymphocytic, include both acute and chronic forms.

  • Acute leukemia essentially refers to a disorder of rapid onset. In the acute myelocytic leukemias, the abnormal cells grow rapidly and do not mature. Most of these immature cells tend to die rapidly. In the acute lymphocytic leukemias, growth is not as rapid as that of the myelocytic cells. Rather, the cells tend to accumulate. Common to both types of leukemia is their inability to carry out the functions of healthy white blood cells. Untreated, death occurs rapidly, often within weeks or a few months.
  • In the chronic leukemias, the onset tends to be slow, and the cells generally mature abnormally and often accumulate in various organs, often over long intervals. Their ability to fight infections and assist in repairing injured tissues is impaired. However, unlike the acute forms of leukemia, untreated, these disorders may persist without resulting in death for many months in chronic myelogenous leukemia, or, as in the case of chronic lymphocytic leukemia, many years. A distinctive feature of the chronic myelocytic type is its virtually invariable conversion, if untreated, to a more rapidly fulminating acute type in what is referred to as a blast crisis, leading to rapid death.

What Kind of Leukemia Is There?

In summary, the four main types of leukemia are as follows:

Less common types include hairy cell leukemia and human T-cell leukemia.

Leukemia affects people of all ages. Approximately 85% of leukemias in children are of the acute type.

  • Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) affects both children and adults but is more common in children. It accounts for 65% of the acute leukemias in children.
  • Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) is essentially an adult disorder and is almost twice as common as chronic myelocytic leukemia.
  • Acute myelocytic leukemia (AML) is the most common acute leukemia in adults.
  • Chronic myelocytic leukemia (CML) is far more common in adults than in children.

As leukemic cells grow and eventually outnumber normal cells, the following events occur:

  • The normal blood cells are disabled, resulting in conditions such as frequent infections, bleeding problems, poor healing of small cuts or sores, and anemia (low red blood cell count).
  • The leukemia cells may collect in certain parts of the body, causing pain, swelling, and other problems.
  • Identifying the type of leukemia is important, since this determines which treatment is given.

Leukemia of all forms is presently estimated to be diagnosed in about 54,000 people in the U.S. in 2015 (ACS - Facts and Figures 2015).

  • In adults, the acute leukemias occur in those of all ages, whereas the chronic varieties, particularly CLL, tend to occur in people older than 40 years.
  • Leukemia is one of the most common cancers of children.
  • Leukemia is more common in people of European descent than in African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, or Native Americans.

Survival rates in leukemia have risen dramatically in the last 40 years with improvements in diagnosis and treatment.

  • In 1960, the overall 5-year survival rate for all leukemias was about 14%. It is now about 55%.
  • The highest survival rates occur in children with the so-called "common" ALL type.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 1/7/2016
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Leukemia: After Your Visit

How can you care for yourself at home?

  • Take your medicines exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor if you think you are having a problem with your medicine. You may get medicine for nausea and vomiting if you have these side effects.
  • Eat healthy food. If you do not feel like eating, try to eat food that has protein and extra calories to keep up your strength and prevent weight loss. Drink liquid meal replacements for extra calories and protein. Try to eat your main meal early.
  • Get some physical activity every day, but do not get too tired. Keep doing the hobbies you enjoy as your energy allows.
  • Take steps to control your stress and workload. Learn relaxation techniques.
  • ...


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