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Leukemia: Symptoms, Causes & Treatment

Leukemia: Symptoms, Causes & Treatment


What is Leukemia?

Leukemia is a blood cancer that develops in the myeloid cells or the lymphoid cells. Leukemia can be acute, fast growing, chronic or slow growing (x).

Some forms of leukemia are common, while others are among the rarest blood diseases. Experts estimate that about 176,000 people in the United States will be diagnosed with some type of blood cancer in 2019 alone (x).

What is a Blood Cancer?

A blood cancer attacks blood cells, most of which originate in the bone marrow — whose job is to produce new blood — and then move through the bloodstream. A blood cancer forms when abnormal blood cells start to grow uncontrollably and prevent normal blood cells from reproducing and fighting off infection (x, x).

Leukemia is one of four main types of blood cancer, with four different forms (x):

  • Acute myeloid leukemia (AML)
  • Chronic myeloid leukemia (CML)
  • Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL)
  • Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)

Signs & Symptoms of Leukemia

The signs may vary and mast cell leukemia symptoms may be different from bone pain leukemia (x, x).

Acute Myeloid Leukemia Symptoms

  • Fatigue (x)
  • Bruising in unusual places that take longer to disappear than usual
  • Excess bleeding
  • Nosebleeds
  • Petechiae, tiny red dots that form from broken blood vessels (x, x)
  • Leukemia rash
  • Leukemia cutis, infiltration of leukemia cells, which leads to lesions on and under the skin (x, x, x)
  • Fever, one of the 5 cardinal signs of cancer in children (x)
  • Weight loss (x, x)

Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia Symptoms

  • Nose bleeds and fatigue followed by dizziness
  • Night sweats and fever-like signs
  • Skin spots, petechiae or other visible skin changes
  • Stomach and bone pain
  • Lumps in the stomach, underarm, neck or groin
  • Uncontrolled weight loss
  • Bleeding and bruising
  • Proneness to infections
  • Appetite loss
  • Swelling in the abdomen
  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Bone or joint pain (x, x)

Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia Symptoms

Many patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia do not have symptoms at their diagnosis. Instead, doctors might find it in a blood test from another unrelated health problem or during a check-up if they have a high number of lymphocytes (x, x).

  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Night sweats
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Pain in the stomach, caused by an enlarged spleen and/or liver
  • Bone pain, especially below the ribs, as a result of too many leukemia cells in the bone marrow
  • Infections that don’t heal

However, some of these symptoms — such as nosebleeds, fever or bruises — are related to other conditions, so it’s best to get an official diagnosis from a doctor as soon as possible.

Leukemia Symptoms

Causes & Risk Factors of Leukemia

Researchers have not yet determined the exact cause of leukemia. However, some factors may increase the risk of developing it.

It is important to note that although HTLV-I virus can carry leukemia genes, leukemia is not contagious (x, x) There is also no one way to prevent leukemia, other than avoiding risk factors when possible.


In a 2014 study, researchers tested the relationship between smoking and AML development. The results showed that current smokers had a 40 percent increased risk of developing it, compared to non-smokers. They concluded that smoking is a potential environmental risk factor for AML (x).


Most childhood leukemia cases are acquired genetically and caused by sporadic abnormalities in chromosomes and gene mutations (x). However, it is rare to find families with inheritable forms of leukemia. Here are some genetic mutations that increase leukemia risk (x):

  • CEBPA, causing low white blood cell count
  • DDX41, which disrupts the ability to suppress tumors
  • RUNX1, which causes low platelet counts


Benzene is a common chemical used in plastic, rubber, dye, detergents, drugs and pesticides. It is also found in crude oil and gasoline (x).

According to research, there might be an indication that exposure to benzene can put you at a higher risk for leukemia, whether in the community or in the workplace. One study in particular determined a consistent association between benzene exposure and increased risk of AML and CLL specifically (x).


Anemia is a common blood disorder affecting more than 3 million people in the U.S. characterized by low red blood cell counts (x). Blood cancers, like leukemia, may cause anemia because they compete for space in the marrow and reduce red blood cell count because it keeps them from reproducing normally (x). Anemia is also one of the causes of shortness of breath.

For example, Fanconi anemia causes bone marrow to fail from gene mutations. According to a research study, leukemia is one of its potential complications (x).


According to the American Cancer Society, past radiation exposure can cause most forms of leukemia. For example, myelodysplastic syndrome is a bone marrow cancer that can develop into acute leukemia and has been linked to radiation exposure (x).

Leukemia Stages & Classification

Most cancer staging depends on tumor size and how it spreads. But leukemia staging usually depends on blood cell counts and whether the cells accumulate in other organ cells, such as the liver or the spleen (x). Different types of leukemia have different stages:

Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia

There are two different staging systems for CLL, the Rai and Binet staging systems (x).

Rai Staging System

  • Low Risk (Stage 0): Abnormal increase in lymphocytes in the blood and marrow
  • Intermediate Risk (Stages 1 & 2): Enlarged lymph nodes, spleen or liver, along with increase in lymphocytes in blood and marrow
  • High Risk (Stages 3 & 4): Anemia or increased platelet counts, along with increased lymphocytes in the blood and marrow

Binet Staging System

  • A: No anemia, normal amount of platelets and less than three areas with lymphoid enlargement
  • B: Anemia has not developed, normal amount of platelets and at least 3 areas with lymphoid enlargement
  • C: Anemia develops, increased amount of platelets and any number of areas with lymphoid enlargement

Chronic Myeloid Leukemia

Each phase is determined by abnormal white blood cell counts, which blocks normal blood cell production (x).

Chronic Phase

Most people are diagnosed with the chronic phase. Patients have a high white blood cell count, but may or may not experience symptoms.

Accelerated Phase

The chronic phase usually responds well to treatment, but progresses to the accelerated phase if untreated. In addition to a rise in white blood cells, there are sometimes chromosomal changes.

Blast Crisis Phase

People in this phase may have anemia, very high or low platelet counts and high white blood cell count. The abnormal blood cells spread to other tissues and organs.

Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia

Doctors classify ALL into sub types to determine treatment options. The World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes two main sub types (x):

B-Cell Lymphoblastic Leukemia

The most common ALL sub type, B-cell lymphoblastic leukemia develops in immature cells that are supposed to become B-cell lymphocytes.

T-Cell Lymphoblastic Leukemia

Like its counterpart, this type of ALL forms in cells that are supposed to become T-cell lymphocytes. It’s less common and occurs more often in adults.

Acute Myeloid Leukemia

To classify AML subgroups, the World Health Organization determined the following system to identify AML with different qualities (x):

  • Genetic abnormalities
  • Myelodysplasia-related changes
  • AML not otherwise specified
  • Myeloid sarcoma
  • Myeloid proliferations related to Down Syndrome

Leukemia Treatment

Treatment depends on the type of leukemia, age and mutations and DNA changes in your cancer cells. Some of the potential leukemia treatments include (x):

Bone Marrow Transplant

Bone marrow is the best chance for curing leukemia (x). It replaces blood cells in the bone marrow, so that it can eventually make healthy ones (x).

Stem Cell Transplant

In a stem cell procedure, first your diseased bone marrow is destroyed and then replaced by infusing stem cells to restore properly functioning ones. Usually, some transplants do not directly attack cancer, but it may in some types of leukemia (x).


Chemotherapy is the most frequent treatment. It uses drugs that aim to kill cancer cells. The type of medication depends on the type of leukemia you have (x).

Biological Therapy

Whether they are derived substances or laboratory-produced versions, biological therapy uses living organisms to manage the effects of leukemia. Some types boost your immune system, while others directly target the cancer cells (x).

See Also

Targeted Therapy

This treatment identifies and then attacks a discovered vulnerability of your cells, as different patients can experience differences in their cancer cells’ biology (x).

Blood Transfusions

Using cells from healthy donors, blood transfusions aim to boost and replace red blood cells, white blood cells or platelets. First, doctors collect the blood and then separate it in a lab to remove certain components (x).

Natural Remedies

While holistic leukemia treatment is available, there is no scientific evidence that it works as a cure. Rather, natural remedies can help to promote the effects of medications and therapies.

  • Optimal nutrient, mineral and vitamin intake (x, x)
  • Exercise (x)
  • Maintain sleep quality (x, x)
  • Socialize (x, x)
  • Manage your stress (x, x)


Supplements are also a great way to keep your body healthy and aid the recovery process.

Beta Glucan Powder

This product includes polysaccharides derived from baker’s yeast they can help promote immune system strength. The recommended dosage of beta glucan is is 250 mg per day (x, x).

Zinc Gluconate Powder

Aside from boosting your immunity, zinc is a mineral that may have a positive effect on heart health and it also participates in many vital processes in the organism. The recommended dosage is between 225 and 450 mg daily (x, x).

MSM Methylsulfonylmethane

Derived from sulfur, this compound can promote digestion and healthy joints. You can dissolve it in water, and the optimal dose of MSM is 1,000 to 1,300 mg four times daily in powder form and one to three times in capsule form (x, x, x).

Quercetin Dihydrate Powder

Quercetin is a flavonoid with anti-inflammatory properties and it helps to protect your cells from oxidative stress. It also boosts immunity thanks to high quantities of vitamin C. The recommended dose of quercetin is 250 to 500 mg up three times per day (x).

Alpha Lipoic Acid Powder

With antioxidant properties, alpha lipoic acid can boost immunity, while also increasing energy. The recommended dose of ALA is 600 mg once or twice daily with meals (x).

Milk Thistle Extract Powder

Belonging to the daisy family, milk thistle is a potent antioxidant that boosts optimal liver function, while also promoting heart and skin health. For best effects, take 250 mg every day or without food (x, x).

Ashwagandha Extract

Ashwagandha can have a positive effect on brain health, cognitive performance and may provide stress relief. It is wise to take 450 mg of this component from one to three times per day (x, x).

Resveratrol Powder

You can find resveratrol in berries, red grapes and other plants. It has antioxidant properties and promotes brain and heart health. Take 250 mg twice daily, with raw grapes or other grape extracts to enhance the effects (x, x).

Inositol Hexaphosphate Powder

Inositol Hexaphosphate can be a vital source of vitamin B and promotes optimal immunity. Take 500 mg two to three times daily (x, x).

The Bottom Line

Leukemia is a type of blood cancer, forming in early-forming blood cells. There are four types of leukemia — acute myeloid leukemia, chronic myeloid leukemia, acute lymphocytic leukemia and chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

There is no one specific cause or cure for leukemia. Fortunately, the progress in various areas of medicine offers treatment options with improved life expectancy. When paired with treatment, and lifestyle changes, supplements can help manage the symptoms and enhance your quality of life.

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