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Leukemia Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center

What Is Leukemia?

Leukemia is a group of blood cancers that affect the body's blood cells, mainly the white blood cells. Leukemia can form when white blood cells don't grow as they should.

Doctors diagnose leukemia most often in people older than 55. But it's also the most common cancer in children under 15.

Each year, doctors diagnose about 60,000 people in the U.S. with leukemia.


Contact Us About Leukemia Care

UPMC specialists at the Mario Lemieux Center for Blood Cancers provide expert diagnosis and treatment of all leukemias. Call us today at 412-864-6600 to make an appointment.


What Causes Leukemia?

Leukemia starts in bone marrow, the sponge-like tissue at a bone's center.

Blood stem cells in the bone marrow mature into either:

  • Platelets.
  • Red blood cells.
  • White blood cells.

In leukemia, too many white blood cells form. They overtake healthy blood cells and keep them from working as they should.

Are There Different Types of Leukemia?

Yes. Each type and subtype depends on the affected blood cells and how quickly cancer cells grow.

In acute leukemia, cells grow very quickly. Chronic leukemia grows more slowly and takes longer to advance.

Doctors use blood cancer tests to diagnose the leukemia type and plan the best treatment for you.

Read on to learn about the four most common types of leukemia.

Lymphocytes are immature white blood cells that help your body fight infections and cancer. ALL begins when too many of them form in the bone marrow.

B lymphocytes are cells that make antibodies. T lymphocytes are cells that help regulate your immune system.

ALL is more common in children and in adults over 50.

It can spread to the:

  • Brain.
  • Liver.
  • Lymph nodes.
  • Spine.
  • Spleen.
AML is the most common type of acute leukemia in adults.

It starts in the bone marrow, often in white blood cells called myeloblasts. But AML can also affect red blood cells and platelets.

As abnormal cells increase, they overwhelm healthy cells in bone marrow and blood.

Cancer cells can spread quickly to other parts of the body, including the:

  • Central nervous system.
  • Liver.
  • Lymph nodes.

CLL is the most common type of chronic leukemia in adults.

It occurs when bone marrow makes more lymphocytes than it should. These cells become cancerous and don't work normally.

As the number of cancer cells increases, they block healthy blood cells from doing their job.

CLL mostly occurs in adults in midlife and older.

Based on the CLL subtype, cancer may progress slowly or quickly.

CML is less common than other types.

About 15 percent of leukemias are CML, and it affects more adults than children. The average age of CML diagnosis is 64.

CML forms when a genetic change occurs in myeloid cells. This change turns the affected cells into cancer cells that multiply.

Cancer cells build up in the bone marrow and blood, crowding out healthy cells.

Sometimes, CML can change into acute leukemia, which is hard to treat.

Some types of leukemia are less common, such as:

  • Hairy cell leukemia. A slow-growing cancer that forms in certain white blood cells (B lymphocytes) and causes them to grow out of control.
  • Large granular lymphocytic (LGL) leukemia. A blood cancer that causes certain white blood cells (lymphocytes) to get large and appear grainy. LGL leukemias can grow slowly or quickly.
  • Prolymphocytic leukemia (PLL). A rare, aggressive blood cancer that affects the body's B-cells or T-cells.

What Are Symptoms of Leukemia?

Leukemia symptoms may differ based on the type.

But there are some common signs and symptoms of leukemia, such as:

  • Appetite loss.
  • Breathing trouble.
  • Frequent bruising or bleeding.
  • Fatigue.
  • Fever.
  • Headache.
  • Recurring or many new infections.
  • Sweating at night.
  • Skin rash or red spots.
  • Unexplained weight loss.
  • Weakness.

Talk with your doctor if you have any leukemia symptoms, especially if you have a family history of blood cancers.

What Are Risk Factors of Leukemia?

Along with a family history of blood cancers, other factors that could increase your risk of leukemia include:

  • Exposure to benzene, a chemical used in some industries.
  • Exposure to radiation at high levels, such as during cancer treatment or in the workplace.
  • Smoking.

How Do You Diagnose Leukemia?

Your doctor may suspect you have leukemia if you have symptoms. They may order a blood test or bone marrow biopsy to confirm a leukemia diagnosis.

There are no recommended screenings for leukemia.

Some people learn they have slow-growing leukemia during routine blood tests.

Tell your doctor if you have any symptoms or a family history of blood cancers.

Are There Treatments for Leukemia?

Yes. UPMC's leukemia experts offer advanced treatments for blood cancers.

Your doctor will design a leukemia treatment plan based on the type you have.

Watchful waiting

Some slow-growing leukemias may not cause symptoms right away.

You may not need treatment until you have symptoms or your symptoms change.

Your doctor will check on your condition during this observation period, known as watchful waiting.

Drugs (systemic therapies) to treat leukemia

Drugs that work to fight cancer in your body include:

  • Chemotherapy destroys cancer cells.
  • Immunotherapy helps your immune system hunt down and kill cancer.
  • Targeted therapy fights cancer cells by targeting specific genetic changes in your body.

CAR T-cell therapy

CAR T-cell therapy, a type of immunotherapy, uses your own T cells to fight cancer.

Doctors may use this to treat certain types of leukemia.

Stem cell transplant to treat leukemia

Stem cell transplant replaces diseased cells in your blood or bone marrow with healthy cells. These cells may be your own or come from a donor.

Most people will first have chemo before having a stem cell transplant.

Radiation therapy

During treatment, a machine points high-energy radiation beams at cancer cells to kill them or stop them from growing and spreading.

Clinical trials of leukemia treatments

UPMC blood cancer experts offer clinical trials for some leukemias.

Talk to your cancer doctor to see if you qualify to take part in a clinical trial for new leukemia treatments.

Leukemia Support and Resources at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center

Support services to help you and your loved ones manage the physical and mental impacts of leukemia include:

  • Counseling.
  • Leukemia support groups.
  • Access to resources near you. 

Cancer care close to home

UPMC Hillman Cancer Center has more than 200 cancer experts and 70 locations in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, and western New York. And as one of the largest community cancer networks in the U.S., we're right in your backyard.

Find a UPMC Hillman Cancer Center doctor or location near you.