What is leukaemia?

Leukaemia is a cancerous illness of white blood cells, which are responsible for fighting infection. Like the other sorts of blood cell in the body (red blood cells, which carry oxygen; and platelets, which help control bleeding), white blood cells form in the bone marrow, a spongy material that fills the bones.

In the bone marrow, immature cells multiply and mature into red cells, white cells and platelets. As they mature they are released into the bloodstream.

In leukaemia, the white blood cells instead of growing and developing normally grow out of control and do not mature. This uncontrolled growth of immature white blood cells can crowd the bone marrow preventing it from producing healthy white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets. 

There are several different types of leukaemia, each with its own particular characteristics and treatment. We asked an expert, Professor Asim Khwaja from University College London, to explain how the four main types differ:

•    acute myeloid leukaemia (AML),
•    acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL),
•    chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) and
•    chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL)

On this section of healthtalk.org about leukaemia you will find the stories of people who have one of the four main types of leukaemia described above. Other, rarer types are represented too, such as hairy cell leukaemia, so called because of the hair-like projections that can be seen through a microscope on the surface of the affected white blood cells. Several other non-cancerous conditions affect the production of blood cells, and may later develop into leukaemia; we have included the stories of some people with a condition called myelodysplastic syndrome. Professor Khwaja explains what this is.
The treatment for leukaemia varies according to what type it is. In the following clips, Professor Khwaja outlines how each of the main types of leukaemia is treated. For more details about specific treatments see: 'Chemotherapy', 'Stem cell or bone marrow transplants', 'Biological therapies', 'Radiotherapy' and 'Supportive treatments'.

Before their own diagnosis most people we spoke to had known little or nothing about leukaemia and how it can affect people. However, all had heard of it and had known it was serious, often because they had known someone else who'd had it. Many people had associated it with children and hadn’t realised that adults could also develop it. Several knew it was a disease of the blood or the bone marrow, but few knew that there were different types of leukaemia. Some people said that leukaemia had just been a scary word to them before their diagnosis and a few hadn’t understood that it was a form of cancer until they were specifically told this or when chemotherapy was mentioned.

Last reviewed: December 2018.
Last updated: December 2018.

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