Leukaemia is a blood cancer that causes an uncontrolled production of abnormal and immature white cells.

What is leukaemia?

Leukaemia is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal white-blood cells, which impacts normal blood cell production in the bone marrow and reduces the number of healthy mature cells.1 This can lead to anaemia, a compromised immune system and bleeding problems.

There are four primary types of leukaemia, which are named according to the type of white blood cell affected (lymphoid or myeloid), and how the disease appears and progresses (acute or chronic).

Types of leukaemia

Cancers are classified as acute or chronic based on their rate of progression. Acute leukaemia is a rapidly progressing disease, while chronic leukaemia progresses slowly over months to years.

Treatment usually begins quickly after diagnosis for acute leukaemia given its rapid nature. Chronic leukaemia may not require treatment for a long time after it is diagnosed.

Acute Leukaemia

Healthy bone marrow produces blast cells, or immature white blood cells, which then develop into mature white cells, red cells and platelets.

When you have acute leukaemia, diseased bone marrow produces an excessive number of abnormal blast cells, called leukaemic cells, which build up in the bone marrow and interfere with the production of normal blood cells.

Common forms of acute leukaemia are:

  • Acute myeloid leukaemia (AML)
  • Acute lymphocytic leukaemia (ALL)

Chronic Leukaemia

In chronic leukaemia there is a build-up of mature but abnormal white blood cells that became malignant when developing from a blast cell.

Common forms of chronic leukaemia are:

  • Chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML)
  • Chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL)

Signs and symptoms of leukaemia

While people with leukaemia may have mild symptoms, these can worsen over time to include:

  • Ongoing fatigue/tiredness
  • Pale complexion
  • Repeated infections such as mouth sores, sore throat, fevers, infected cuts, etc.
  • Losing weight without trying
  • Swollen lymph nodes, enlarged liver or spleen
  • Easy bleeding or bruising
  • Recurrent nosebleeds


Frequently asked questions

Is leukaemia hereditary?

While most leukaemias are not hereditary, there are some genetic disorders which can increase the chance of developing leukaemia, such as Li-Fraumeni Syndrome and Downs Syndrome. 5

Some inherited conditions which affect the immune system, such as Bloom Syndrome, can also increase the risk for leukaemia.

Are there risk factors for leukaemia?
  • Alcohol: There is some evidence to suggest that mothers who drink alcohol during pregnancy may increase the risk for development of acute myeloid leukaemia in their children.4 However, not all studies have found this and further research is needed.
  • Exposure to large levels of radiation (such as survivors from the Japanese atomic bomb) have an increased the risk for leukaemia. The risk from radiation exposure due to x-rays and scans is not conclusive, however it is thought the risk is small.3
  • Chemical exposure such as benzene also carries an increased risk for leukaemia.5
  • Previous treatments with chemotherapy drugs or radiation therapy can also increase the risk for AML and ALL.5
  • Smoking is a proven risk factor for acute myeloid leukaemia (AML).6
  • Siblings: Having a brother or sister with leukaemia slightly increases your risk of developing leukaemia, however having an identical twin with leukaemia increases the risk substantially more.


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