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Information from Your Family Doctor

Leukemia: The Basics


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Am Fam Physician. 2014 May 1;89(9):online.

  See related article on leukemia.

What is leukemia?

Leukemia (loo-KEE-me-uh) is cancer of the blood and bone marrow. People of any age can get it, and the cause is not clear. You may be at higher risk if you were exposed to radiation or certain chemicals and pesticides. If you have had blood or bone marrow cancer before, you may be more likely to get it.

What are the different types?

The most common childhood leukemia is called acute lymphoblastic [LIM-fo-BLAS-tick] leukemia. People with this type may have fever, tiredness, bleeding, bruising, bone pain, and a swollen liver or spleen. The most common leukemia in adults is acute myelogenous [MY-eh-LAH-jen-us] leukemia. This can cause fever, tiredness, weight loss, bleeding, and bruising.

Two other types, chronic lymphocytic [LIM-fo-SIT-ick] leukemia and chronic myelogenous leukemia, occur mostly in older adults. Many people do not have symptoms, but they may have a swollen liver, spleen, or lymph nodes.

How is it diagnosed and treated?

Leukemia is diagnosed based on blood or bone marrow tests. The treatment depends on a person's age, health, and the type of leukemia. Treatment may include chemotherapy, radiation, bone marrow transplant, or medicine to kill the cancer cells. Persons with chronic lymphocytic leukemia can be monitored without treatment if they do not have symptoms and their blood counts are stable.

Where can I get more information?

Your doctor


Leukemia and Lymphoma Society

National Cancer Institute

National Comprehensive Cancer Network: Guidelines for Patients

This handout is provided to you by your family doctor and the American Academy of Family Physicians. Other health-related information is available from the AAFP online at

This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.


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