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Section Summary: Leukemia


  • The cellular component of blood contains red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets.
  • Leukemia is characterized by an increase in the number of white cells in the blood and bone marrow.

White Blood Cells

  • There are five types of white blood cells or leukocytes.
  • Leukocytes play an important role in our body's immune system.
  • All blood cells form from hematopoietic stem cells.
  • Blood cell precursors mature in the bone marrow before entering the circulating blood stream.
  • Disruption of the cell maturation process is central to the development of leukemia.

Types of Leukemia

  • Leukemia is divided into 4 main categories based on the affected cell type:
    • Acute lymphoblastic or myeloid leukemia (ALL and AML)
    • Chronic lymphoid or myeloid leukemia (CLL and CML)
  • Acute leukemias are generally aggressive whereas chronic disorders exhibit a slower progression.

Risk Factors

  • The risk of developing most types of leukemia increases steadily with age.
  • Secondary AML can develop following chemotherapy treatment.
  • Leukemia occurs more frequently in white males than in any other population.
  • Children with Down syndrome (DS) have a roughly 20-fold increased risk of developing childhood leukemia compared to children without DS.
  • Exposure to ionizing radiation increases the risk for leukemia.
  • The Human T-cell Leukemia Virus Type 1 (HTLV-1) has been linked to the development of Adult T-cell Leukemia/Lymphoma.


  • Paleness, tiredness, shortness of breath, excessive bleeding, and increased susceptibility to infections.
  • Swelling of the lymph nodes, spleen, and liver.

Detection and Diagnosis

  • Blood and bone marrow tests are used to diagnose leukemia.

Tumor Biology

  • Many genetic changes occur in cancer. Details can be found in the Mutation section.


  • Leukemia treatments include: chemotherapy, immunotherapy, radiation therapy, stem cell transplantation and surgery.

Learn more about leukemia or make an appointment at the Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University.

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