Leukemia Awareness Month: Let’s Talk Types, Symptoms, and Support
In the United States, more than 459,000 people are living with or are in remission from leukemia, according to the National Cancer Institute. Leukemia, a cancer of the blood cells, can occur at any age. Alyssa was just 3 years old when she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. At age 9, she experienced a recurrence. Her second round of treatment continued until she was 12. Now in her early 30s, the 2-time leukemia survivor worries about being diagnosed with cancer again, and she is diligent about her survivorship care. That includes having follow-up visits with her doctors. “I am always reassured by the thought that if anything was amiss, they would pick up on it and we would deal with it right away,” says Alyssa.
Although leukemia can occur at any age, acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) is most common in children, teens, and young adults. Read on as we share key things to know about ALL and other types of leukemia in recognition of Blood Cancer Awareness Month.
Approximately 1.6% of men and women will be diagnosed with leukemia at some point during their lifetime.
— National Cancer Institute
Types of Leukemia
Leukemia forms in tissue such as bone marrow and causes blood cells to be produced and enter the bloodstream. It usually starts in white blood cells, which are strong infection fighters. The blood cells grow and divide abnormally, producing large numbers of white blood cells that do not function properly.
There are several types of leukemia. They are grouped based on how quickly the disease develops. Leukemia is either chronic or acute.
Chronic leukemia develops slowly. Symptoms do not appear right away. Diagnosis may be made at a regular check-up or through a blood test. Early in the disease, the leukemia cells can still do some of the normal work of white blood cells. As the number of leukemia cells increases, symptoms such as swollen lymph nodes or infections start to appear. Symptoms are mild at first but slowly get worse.
Common types of chronic leukemia are:
- Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL): CLL is a cancer that begins in B lymphocytes or B cells. These are a type of white blood cell. B lymphocytes are part of the immune system and make antibodies to attack bacteria, viruses, and toxins.
- Small Lymphocytic Lymphoma (SLL): SLL is a type of lymphoma, but it's treated the same as CLL. CLL and SLL are the same disease, but in CLL, cancer cells are found mostly in the blood and bone marrow. In SLL, cancer cells are found mostly in the lymph nodes.
- Chronic Myeloid Leukemia (CML): CML begins in myeloid cells, which are made in the spongy center of bones (bone marrow). Healthy myeloid cells form a balance of different blood cells: red cells, some types of white cells, and platelets. In CML, genetic changes cause myeloid cells to produce blood cells that grow out of control.
Acute leukemia usually gets worse quickly. The leukemia cells can't do the work of normal white blood cells, and the number of leukemia cells increases rapidly.
Common types of acute leukemia are:
- Acute Lymphocytic/Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL): This cancer begins in the immature white blood cells in the bone marrow. The leukemia cells grow quickly, overtaking the space there. More than half of people diagnosed with acute lymphocytic/lymphoblastic leukemia are younger than age 20; 10% are ages 20-34.
- Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML): AML begins in the bone marrow, the soft inner part of certain bones, where new blood cells are made. Changes happen in some of these cells that make them grow out of control. AML usually grows and moves into the blood quickly.
Acute myeloid leukemia is more common in older adults and among men compared to women.
— National Cancer Institute
Signs & Symptoms of Leukemia
Common signs and symptoms for chronic and acute leukemias include:
- Bleeding easily
- Feeling weak or tired
- Fevers or night sweats
- Frequent infections
- Pain in the bones or joints
- Purplish patches on the skin or tiny red spots under the skin
- Swelling or discomfort in the abdomen
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Weight loss
Be sure to talk with your health care provider if you notice anything unusual.
Leukemia Resources and Support
If you are living with leukemia or are a caregiver or loved one to someone with leukemia, these resources can help ease the burden of your journey.
- Find more information about leukemia, including risk factors, testing, treatment options, and how to cope.
- Connect with our Cancer Support Helpline by phone or online via our live chat service. Our experienced Helpline staff is here to offer free navigation for cancer patients and their loved ones.
- Create a private support website through MyLifeLine, our online support community for people impacted by cancer. You can document your journey and receive support from friends and family along the way. MyLifeLine members can also join any of 14 different discussion boards for cancer patients and caregivers.
I am determined to face each challenge with [resolve] and strength of spirit, knowing that with support from the health care community and others, I can overcome almost anything.
— Alyssa, leukemia survivor
Alyssa shares more about her story in our Survivorship series. She discusses side effects of her treatment, survivorship care, and the power of positive thinking.