Scientists don't understand the exact causes of leukemia. It seems to develop from a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
How leukemia forms
In general, leukemia is thought to occur when some blood cells acquire mutations in their DNA — the instructions inside each cell that guide its action. There may be other changes in the cells that have yet to be fully understood could contribute to leukemia.
Certain abnormalities cause the cell to grow and divide more rapidly and to continue living when normal cells would die. Over time, these abnormal cells can crowd out healthy blood cells in the bone marrow, leading to fewer healthy white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets, causing the signs and symptoms of leukemia.
How leukemia is classified
Doctors classify leukemia based on its speed of progression and the type of cells involved.
The first type of classification is by how fast the leukemia progresses:
- Acute leukemia. In acute leukemia, the abnormal blood cells are immature blood cells (blasts). They can't carry out their normal functions, and they multiply rapidly, so the disease worsens quickly. Acute leukemia requires aggressive, timely treatment.
- Chronic leukemia. There are many types of chronic leukemias. Some produce too many cells and some cause too few cells to be produced. Chronic leukemia involves more mature blood cells. These blood cells replicate or accumulate more slowly and can function normally for a period of time. Some forms of chronic leukemia initially produce no early symptoms and can go unnoticed or undiagnosed for years.
The second type of classification is by type of white blood cell affected:
- Lymphocytic leukemia. This type of leukemia affects the lymphoid cells (lymphocytes), which form lymphoid or lymphatic tissue. Lymphatic tissue makes up your immune system.
- Myelogenous (my-uh-LOHJ-uh-nus) leukemia. This type of leukemia affects the myeloid cells. Myeloid cells give rise to red blood cells, white blood cells and platelet-producing cells.
Types of leukemia
The major types of leukemia are:
Mar. 26, 2015
- Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL). This is the most common type of leukemia in young children. ALL can also occur in adults.
- Acute myelogenous leukemia (AML). AML is a common type of leukemia. It occurs in children and adults. AML is the most common type of acute leukemia in adults.
- Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). With CLL, the most common chronic adult leukemia, you may feel well for years without needing treatment.
- Chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML). This type of leukemia mainly affects adults. A person with CML may have few or no symptoms for months or years before entering a phase in which the leukemia cells grow more quickly.
- Other types. Other, rarer types of leukemia exist, including hairy cell leukemia, myelodysplastic syndromes and myeloproliferative disorders.
- What you need to know about leukemia. National Cancer Institute. http://www.cancer.gov/publications/patient-education/wyntk-leukemia. Accessed March 11, 2015.
- Understanding leukemia. Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. http://www.lls.org/resourcecenter/freeeducationmaterials/leukemia/understandingleukemia. Accessed March 11, 2015.
- Taking time: Support for people with cancer. National Cancer Institute. http://www.cancer.gov/publications/patient-education/taking-time. Accessed March 11, 2015.
- Cook AJ. Decision Support System. Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. March 11, 2015.
- Mesa RA (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic, Scottsdale/Phoenix, Ariz. March 11, 2015.
You Are ... The Campaign for Mayo Clinic
Mayo Clinic is a not-for-profit organization. Make a difference today.