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Leukemia is a blood cancer that develops in the bone marrow or lymphatic system. Usually, the cancer affects white blood cells, making it more difficult for the immune system to fight off harmful invaders, such as bacteria, viruses and cancer. Possible symptoms include unexplained fatigue, easy bruising and bleeding, breathlessness and recurrent infections.

What are the types of leukemia?

Leukemia can be broadly classified as acute or chronic. Acute leukemias affect immature blood cells and tend to be aggressive, while chronic leukemias affect mature blood cells and usually develop gradually.

Leukemia can be further classified by the type of cells affected. The four main types are:

  1. Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) – The most common type of leukemia in children
  2. Acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) – The most common type of leukemia overall
  3. Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) – The most common type of chronic leukemia in adults
  4. Chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) – Mainly affects adults and may not cause noticeable symptoms for up to several years

What causes leukemia?

Through extensive research, scientists have determined that leukemia results from genetic mutations in the DNA of blood cells, most often white blood cells. Known as leukemic changes, these harmful mutations cause the cells to grow and divide uncontrollably, leading to an accumulation of abnormal cells in the bone marrow and blood, which eventually crowds out healthy cells.

The precise cause of the cellular DNA mutations that lead to the development of leukemia is unknown. Experts believe it is most likely an as-of-yet-undetermined combination of genetic and environmental factors.

What causes childhood leukemia?

Leukemia is the most common type of cancer in children and adolescents, accounting for 25% of all cancers diagnosed in individuals younger than 20. Scientists do not yet fully understand the reasons for this trend. Most young people who are diagnosed with leukemia have no known risk factors.

What are the risk factors for leukemia?

Researchers have identified several characteristics, behaviors and exposures that are known to increase the risk of leukemia. While some leukemia risk factors can be managed, others cannot.

Leukemia risk factors that can be controlled

By making healthy lifestyle changes, it may be possible to manage certain leukemia risk factors, such as:

  • Exposure to tobacco smoke – Quitting smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke
  • Exposure to certain chemicals – Avoiding petrochemicals such as benzene, which is found in tobacco smoke, gasoline and some industrial chemicals

Leukemia risk factors that cannot be controlled

Certain leukemia risk factors cannot be managed, such as:

  • Genetic predisposition – A family history of leukemia
  • Certain genetic conditions – Down syndrome and Li-Fraumeni syndrome
  • Certain inherited immune system conditions – Ataxia-telangiectasia, Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome, Bloom syndrome and Shwachman-Diamond syndrome
  • Certain viral infections – Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), human T-cell leukemia virus type 1 (HTLV-1), human herpesvirus 8 (HHV-8) and hepatitis C
  • Exposure to ionizing radiation – Radiation therapy for cancer
  • Chemotherapy – Certain alkylating chemo medications used for cancer treatment
  • Certain environmental exposures – Some industrial solvents, pesticides and herbicides, such as Agent Orange

Who is most at risk for developing leukemia?

Leukemia can affect anyone. Through genetic counseling and testing, it may be possible to identify certain individuals who are at heightened risk due to genetic factors. This information can be used to guide decisions about screening and preventive measures.

Can leukemia be cured?

While there is currently no known cure for leukemia, it can potentially go into complete remission, which means all signs of the cancer have disappeared. Several advanced treatment options are available to help leukemia patients achieve remission without recurrence. These include:

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Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about leukemia causes and risk factors

The following FAQs-related article provides additional information about leukemia causes and risk factors:

Benefit from world-class care at Moffitt Cancer Center

If you would like to learn more about leukemia cases and risk factors, you can request an appointment with a specialist in Moffitt’s renowned Malignant Hematology Program by calling 1-888-663-3488 or submitting a new patient registration form online. We do not require referrals.