What is Leukemia? Causes, symptoms, treatment, complications, and prevention

Written by Nicolas Perez Diaz, May 17, 2023.

Leukemia is a type of cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow, disrupting the production of healthy blood cells. The term leukemia refers to a group of cancerous conditions that develop in the bone marrow and have an impact on the formation of blood cells. White blood cells that are abnormally produced quickly due to the illness progressively outnumber healthy ones. As a result, the body becomes less effective in fighting infections – other problems may also develop.

Leukemia can have a significant impact on individuals of all ages, including children as young as two. However, like all cancers, the highest incidence rates are among older adults (source: Cancer Research UK).

According to roswellpark.org:

“In the United States, overall, 5-year survival among people diagnosed with leukemia is 65%.”

Causes of Leukemia

The exact causes of this type of cancer are not fully understood. However, several factors have been linked to its development, including genetic mutations, exposure to high levels of radiation or chemicals (such as benzene), certain inherited conditions, and previous chemotherapy or radiation therapy for other cancers.

It is important to note that leukemia isn’t contagious.

Signs and symptoms

Leukemia signs and symptoms may vary based on the kind and stage of the illness, and may include:

  • Fatigue and weakness.
  • Frequent infections and fever.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Easy bruising and bleeding.
  • Recurrent nosebleeds.
  • Swollen lymph nodes.
  • Pale skin and shortness of breath.
  • Joint or bone pain.
  • Loss of appetite and weight loss.
  • Night sweats.
  • Repeated infections.
  • Frequent passing of urine.

The following signs and symptoms are also possible, but less common: vomiting, chest pains, pain/discomfort cause by an enlarged spleen, loss of concentration, itchy skin, petechiae (tiny red spots on the skin), headaches, sleeping problems, and swollen/tender gums.

If these symptoms continue or get worse, it’s crucial to speak with a medical expert.

According to Leukaemiacare.org.uk:

“Leukaemia can be hard to spot because the signs and symptoms are common to other unrelated illnesses. Knowing what to look out for could help you make the decision to visit your GP (general practitioner, family doctor) sooner for a blood test.”

Interesting related article: What’s the difference between a sign and a symptom?

Treatment for Leukemia

Treatment options vary depending on several factors, including the type of leukemia, the patient’s age, and their overall health. Typical forms of treatment include:

  • Chemotherapy

The use of powerful drugs to destroy cancer cells.

  • Radiation therapy

High-energy radiation to target and kill cancer cells.

  • Targeted therapy

Medications that target specific abnormalities in cancer cells.

  • Immunotherapy

Boosting the body’s immune system to fight cancer cells. 

  • Stem cell transplant

Replacement of damaged bone marrow with healthy stem cells.

Leukemia - two images related to leukemia and its signs and symptoms.

Created by MedicalVocab.com using material from Wikimedia Commons.


Leukemia and its treatment can lead to several complications. Some examples include an increased susceptibility to infections, anemia (low red blood cell count), bleeding issues brought on by a low platelet count, organ damage, and infertility.. Long-term complications may also arise from the use of radiation therapy or chemotherapy.

Common complications:

  • Infections

People with cancer tend to have weakened immune systems, which makes them more vulnerable to infections. Even a seemingly insignificant illness has the potential to develop into something serious and even fatal. Leukemia patients should maintain excellent hygiene and avoid crowds when they are most vulnerable.

  • Anemia

Leukemia can interfere with the production of healthy red blood cells, leading to anemia. Anemia causes fatigue, weakness, shortness of breath, and pale skin. In some cases, blood transfusions or medications may be required to manage anemia and improve energy levels. 

  • Neurological complications

The patient’s central nervous system may be affected. They may suffer from headaches, seizures, cognitive difficulties, and problems with coordination.

  • Emotional and Psychological challenges

Dealing with a leukemia diagnosis and undergoing treatment may be emotionally and psychologically challenging for patients. They could go through periods of fear, anxiety, depression, and uncertainty about the future.

Prevention of leukemia

There is no guaranteed way to prevent leukemia, but there are things you can do to reduce the risk, these include:

  • Avoid exposure to toxic chemicals and radiation whenever possible.
  • Maintain a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  • Maintain a healthy body weight by exercising regularly; ideally, at least three times a week. If you get really keen, allow for two rest days each week.
  • Practice good hygiene and take necessary precautions to prevent infections.
  • Follow all recommended vaccination schedules.