Leukemia Information

What is Leukemia?

Leukemia is a type of cancer. Cancer is a group of more than 100 diseases that have two important things in common. One is that certain cells in the body become abnormal. Another is that the body keeps producing large numbers of these abnormal cells.

Leukemia is cancer of the blood cells. To understand leukemia information, it is helpful to know about normal blood cells and what happens to them when leukemia develops. Each year, nearly 27,000 adults and more than 2,000 children in the United States learn that they have leukemia.

The blood is made up of fluid called plasma and three types of cells. Each type has special functions.

  • White blood cells (also called WBCs or leukocytes) help the body fight infections and other diseases.

  • Red blood cells (also called RBCs or erythrocytes) carry oxygen from the lungs to the body's tissues and take carbon dioxide from the tissues back to the lungs. The red blood cells give blood its color.

  • Platelets (also called thrombocytes) help form blood clots that control bleeding.

Blood cells are formed in the bone marrow, the soft, spongy center of bones. New (immature) blood cells are called blasts. Some blasts stay in the marrow to mature. Some travel to other parts of the body to mature. Normally, blood cells are produced in an orderly, controlled way, as the body needs them. This process helps keep us healthy.

When leukemia develops, the body produces large numbers of abnormal blood cells. In most types of leukemia, the abnormal cells are white blood cells. The leukemia cells usually look different from normal blood cells, and they do not function properly.

Types of Leukemia

The types of leukemia are grouped by how quickly the disease develops and gets worse. There are two types of leukemia, chronic or acute. Chronic leukemia gets worse slowly while acute leukemia gets worse quickly:

  • Chronic leukemia — Early in the disease, the abnormal blood cells can still do their work, and people with chronic leukemia may not have any symptoms. Slowly, chronic leukemia gets worse. It causes symptoms as the number of leukemia cells in the blood rises.

  • Acute leukemia — The blood cells are very abnormal. They cannot carry out their normal work. The number of abnormal cells increases rapidly. Acute leukemia worsens quickly.

The types of leukemia are also grouped by the type of white blood cell that is affected. Leukemia can arise in lymphoid cells or myeloid cells. Leukemia that affects lymphoid cells is called lymphocytic leukemia. Leukemia that affects myeloid cells is called myeloid leukemia or myelogenous leukemia.

There are four common types of leukemia:

  • Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (chronic lymphoblastic leukemia, CLL) accounts for about 7,000 new cases of leukemia each year. Most often, people diagnosed with this form of chronic leukemia are over age 55. It almost never affects children.

  • Chronic myeloid leukemia (chronic myelogenous leukemia, CML) accounts for about 4,400 new cases of leukemia each year. It affects mainly adults.

  • Acute lymphocytic leukemia (acute lymphoblastic leukemia, ALL) accounts for about 3,800 new cases of leukemia each year. It is the most common type of leukemia in young children. It also affects adults.

  • Acute myeloid leukemia (acute myelogenous leukemia, AML) accounts for about 10,600 new cases of leukemia each year. This type of acute leukemia occurs in both adults and children.

In addition, there are also other rare types of leukemia, including hairy cell leukemia. Together, all of these rare types of leukemia account for about 5,200 new cases of leukemia each year.

To learn more about the different types of leukemia, the treatment options available, possible symptoms to look for and much more, including our supportive message board, please take some time and explore our site.

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