Leukemia – causes, stages, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment

Leukemia, also known as blood cancer is the cancer of blood-forming tissues such as bone marrow and the lymphatic system. It impairs the body’s ability to fight infections.  

Leukemia - causes, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment

There are different types and they include;

  • Acute myeloid leukemia
  • Acute lymphoblastic leukemia
  • Chronic lymphocytic leukemia

This disease can be treated by medical experts if identified earlier before it becomes chronic and life-threatening.

Some types of Leukemia do not show signs early. For such types, treatment can just involve careful monitoring of its progression.


The exact causes of leukemia are unknown but there are several risk factors that have been identified to be able to accelerate and contribute to this infection.

The risk factors of leukemia include;

  • Age
  • Undergoing chemotherapy treatments
  • Exposure to X-ray radiations
  • Genetic mutation
  • Suppressed immune system
  • Exposure to benzene chemical
  • Smoking
  • Obesity
  • Having blood disorders


Studies have established that the risks of suffering from leukemia increase with age.

The average age of people diagnosed with all the three types was found to be 65 years and above.

Although, acute lymphocytic leukemia is very common in people under the age of 20 years.

Undergoing chemotherapy treatments

Chemotherapy is used to treat cancer. Undergoing treatment of other types of cancer using chemotherapy has been linked to being able to increase the risks of suffering from leukemia.

Some chemo drugs have been linked to having side effects and have the ability to cause second-hand cancers such as leukemia.

The types that are usually caused by chemotherapy are acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL)

Chemotherapy is the greatest risk factor than radiation.

Genetic mutation

Leukemia is a genetic disease. Studies have established that it can be caused by gene mutation that involves two genes.

The two genes that mutate are the PML gene and the RARA gene.

The PML gene plays a role in suppressing tumors in the body while the RARA gene plays a role in the production of a protein called retinoic acid receptor alpha (RARA) which controls the activity of certain genes that help white blood cells to mature.

Exposure to X-ray radiations

Exposure to X-ray radiation has been linked to be the biggest cause of childhood leukemia according to a study by researchers at the University of California, School of Public Health. Chest X-rays have been found to be the highest contributors.

Suppressed immune system

The risk of leukemia infection has been seen to increase if individuals immune system is suppressed.

An individual’s immune system can be suppressed due to organ transplant, and suffering from some diseases such as HIV-1.

Exposure to benzene chemical

Research has established that long term exposure to benzene increases the risk of getting leukemia. This is because benzene has been established to induce a decrease in blood cells.

Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is the one that has been seen to be caused by benzene exposure.

This study was carried out on factory workers who had no signs of leukemia before getting exposed to benzene and also tested after exposure and it was found benzene plays a role in causing this disease.


The presence of benzene chemical and radioactive matter in cigarette smoke is the reason why smoking can increase the risk. It plays a role in causing acute myeloid leukemia (AML).

The risk of AML has been established to increase depending on the frequency of smoking and how many years you smoke.


An increase in body weight and being obese has been linked to a possible increase in acute myeloid leukemia (AML). Though this study is not conclusive.

The increase in AML due to obesity has been claimed to increase as a person ages.


Chronic lymphocytic leukemia has 5 main stages of development and these are the stages medical experts use to establish the extent of the disease.

The stages include;

Stage 0 – During this stage there are no signs except the presence of excess lymphocytes in the blood.

Stage I – At this stage, the lymphocytes start to swell due to the excessive production of lymph nodes.

Stage II – The symptoms start to worsen at this stage as lymph nodes, liver and spleen swell due to excessive production of lymphocytes.

Stage III – At this stage, secondary infections start to develop. The person becomes anemic due to the overcrowding of red cells by lymphocytes.

Stage IV – The situation has fully become worse as platelets in the blood decrease. Anemic symptoms worsen and the liver, lymph nodes, and spleen are swollen.


The symptoms of leukemia are;

  • Fatigue and tiredness
  • Bleeding from gums or nails
  • Sweating excessively especially at night
  • Experiencing frequent infections of secondary infections due to a weakened immune system.
  • Bleeding easily and bruising
  • Weight loss
  • Feelings of fever and chills
  • Enlarged spleen, liver, and swollen lymph nodes
  • Pain in the bones
  • Loss of appetite
  • Red spots develop on the skin


There are several procedures that can be used in the diagnosis.

Diagnosis of leukemia can involve;

  • Physical tests
  • Complete blood count(CBC) test
  • Blood cell examinations test
  • Bone marrow aspiration/bone marrow biopsy
  • Imaging tests

Physical tests

This test is carried out by examining the possibility of the symptoms and asking questions.

The doctor will ask you about the symptoms witnessed and feel the lymph nodes at the neck and armpits for any possibility of swelling.

They will also check on the possibility of swollen gums and bruises.

Complete blood count(CBC) test

This will involve establishing the actual composition of red blood cells, platelets, and white blood cells.

If the person has leukemia, the number of red blood cells and platelets will be very low and white blood cells quantity will be abnormally high.

Blood cell examinations test

Doctors can take blood samples for further testing to examine the presence of any substances released by body organs and tissues to establish the existence of leukemia.

Bone marrow aspiration

This is also called bone marrow biopsy.

This procedure involves drawing out fluid from the bone marrow and taken for testing. What prompts this is if the count of white blood cells is found to be abnormally high.

This test will help in establishing the actual existence of leukemia.

Imaging tests

Several imaging tests can be carried out by your doctor. The tests can include;


There are several recommended methods used in treatment. Though, to establish the appropriate method for treatment, the doctor will follow some factors such as the type of leukemia you have, your age and health and the stage of leukemia.

The common methods for treatment of leukemia are;

  • Chemotherapy
  • Biological therapy
  • Targeted therapy
  • Radiation therapy
  • Stem cell transplant
  • Chimeric antigen receptor(CAR) T cell treatment


Chemotherapy is known to be the main method used in the treatment of leukemia.

It involves the use of drugs to kill rapidly dividing leukemia cells. These chemo drugs can either be taken orally or through intravenous injection or through a catheter.

The doctor can either prescribe a single drug or a combination of drugs.

Chemo drugs have side effects such as; hair loss, nausea, tiredness, vomiting, loss of appetite, mouth sores, easy bleeding and bruising and increased chances of getting secondary infections.

Biological therapies

Biological therapies involve the use of natural living organisms in the treatment of leukemia.

The key target of this type of treatment is to help the immune system recognize and kill leukemia cells in the body.

It can involve the use of antibodies, tumor vaccines or cytokines.

Biological therapies also have side effects which include; headache, tiredness, fever, rashes, swelling at the injection area, and muscle ache

Targeted therapy

Targeted therapies are drugs that are used to stop a particular effect of leukemia cells. This type of treatment is better than chemotherapy as it kills only targeted cells.

The basic function of this therapy is to stop the growth of target cells but not to die.

The side effects of targeted therapies include; nausea, sudden weight gain, diarrhea, cramps, vomiting, bloating and swelling

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy involves the use of X-rays or other high energy radiations to target leukemia cells and kill them.

This is usually used to eliminate this disease if it has spread to the brain, spleen and any other body organ like the liver.

The side effects of radiation therapy are; nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Stem cell transplant

Stem cell transplant involves replacing the diseased bone marrow with new healthy bone marrow.

Before the transplant takes place, the diseased bone marrow and leukemia cells are destroyed by the use of high doses of chemotherapy or radiations.

The process of transplanting takes place through intravenous infusion.

The stem cells can either be from yourself or a donor.

The side effects of stem cell transplant are; risk of getting other infections and bleeding.

Chimeric antigen receptor(CAR) T cell treatment

Chimeric antigen receptor(CAR) T cell treatment is a newly invented method used in the treatment of leukemia.

It involves the use of the patient’s own T lymphocytes are re-engineered in the laboratory and then used to attack leukemia cells. Then, they are introduced back into the patient’s bloodstream.

It is currently being used in the treatment of acute lymphoblastic leukemia on patients up to the age of 25 years.

The side effects of this treatment are; high blood pressure, fast heart rate, and heart problems.


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