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Leukaemia is the name for some blood-related types of cancer that develop in the bone marrow.

Normally, young blood cells (blast cells) develop in your bone marrow. When they're mature, they become either red cells, white cells, or platelets, and travel into the bloodstream.

With leukaemia, instead of developing normally, these cells grow and multiply in an uncontrolled way. They stop blood cells working properly in the bloodstream.

Types of leukaemia

Leukaemia graphic Leukaemia can either be acute or chronic.

Leukaemia can also be either myeloid or lymphoid.

Causes of leukaemia

We do not completely understand what causes leukaemia. Some people have a higher chance of getting leukaemia, but that doesn't mean they will definitely get it. If you're worried, talk to your general practice team.

Symptoms of leukaemia

If you have leukaemia, you might have some of these symptoms because your blood doesn't have enough blood cells to work well. For example:

These are also symptoms of many other diseases. In some types of leukaemia, there is no sign that you have it until it reaches an advanced stage.

Diagnosing leukaemia

Leukaemia is diagnosed from either a blood test or a bone marrow biopsy.

In a blood test, the numbers of white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets are counted. The blood count is considered abnormal if there is:

A wide variety of tests are used to check your bone marrow, including microscopic analysis and bone marrow culture studies.

Treating leukaemia

The treatment depends on the individual patient and the type of leukaemia. It can include chemotherapy, radiotherapy and stem cell or bone marrow transplant.

The main aim of the treatment is to get rid of the abnormal malignant cells, allowing the normal cells to grow in the bone marrow again.

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Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed May 2023.


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Review key: HILEU-52883