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 A Brief Guide to Leukaemia

Your Health / Conditions / Cancer / A Brief Guide to Leukaemia

Published on Mar 8, 2022
Medically reviewed by Pfizer Oncology Team


​​​​​​​Leukaemia is a rare type of cancer that can affect both adults and children. In 2020, there were more than 400,000 new leukaemia cases worldwide.1​​​​​

What is Leukaemia?

Leukaemia is a type of blood cancer that affects the body’s blood-forming tissues, including the bone marrow which makes white blood cells. White blood cells fight off infection, but in cases of leukaemia, abnormal white blood cells are produced in an uncontrolled way. They do not function properly, leading to an increased risk of infection and a weakened immune system.These abnormal cells also crowd out healthy cells.

How do you “get” leukaemia? Is it inherited?

The exact cause of leukaemia is unknown, however, there are several genetic and environmental factors that experts believe may increase a person’s risk.
​​​​​​​Some of those risk factors include:

  • A family history of leukaemia
  • Exposure to certain chemicals or high levels of radiation, for instance, after receiving chemotherapy treatment
  • ​​​​​​​Blood disorder
  • Genetic syndromes such as Down syndrome or Bloom Syndrom
  • Smoking, which is a risk factor for acute myeloid leukaemia

What are the common types of leukaemia?

Leukaemia is broken down into different types. The types of leukaemia depend on which cells are affected: lymphoid cells (which is a type of white blood cell) or myeloid cells (which produce red blood cells, platelets, and white blood cells other than lymphocytes).

​​​​​​​The following are the four most common types of leukaemia:

Acute myelogenous leukaemia (AML): Also called acute myeloid leukaemia, this is the most common form of leukaemia.2 AML begins in the myeloid cells and develops rapidly. It can occur in both adults and children, but it is more common in older adults.2

Chronic myelogenous leukaemia (CML): A more rare form, CML occurs mostly in adults and is more frequent in men than in women.3 Like AML, it also starts in the myeloid cells. CML is slow-forming, yet can change to a more rapid spread as the disease progresses.​​​​​

Acute lymphocytic leukaemia (ALL): A fast-growing type of leukaemia that affects the lymphoids, ALL is found to be more common in children than adults.4 In fact, it is the most common type of childhood cancer.4

Chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL): More common in men than women,5 this type of leukaemia is thought to be caused more by genetic factors than environmental factors.5 CLL is also more common in older adults and it increases with age.5

What is the difference between chronic and acute leukaemia?

Acute leukaemia means it is fast-growing; it develops and progresses rapidly. Chronic leukaemia, on the other hand, is slow-growing. With chronic leukaemia, it could take several years for the disease to progress, whereas acute leukaemia spreads quickly and when diagnosed, should be treated as soon as possible.

How is leukaemia diagnosed?

There are several different methods to diagnose leukaemia. Typically, various blood tests are involved, which look for any abnormal changes in the blood cell counts. Diagnosis can also include genetic testing, imaging tests like X-rays, computed tomography (CT) scans, and/or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, and, at times, a bone marrow biopsy.

Does it affect children and adults differently?​​​​​

Some types of leukaemia are more common in adults and some are more common in children. For example, chronic leukaemias are rare in children. Although leukaemia symptoms are similar among all ages, researchers have found that certain genetic differences account for how leukaemia presents in adults versus children. This is the case for AML.

What are the key symptoms and signs?

There are several key symptoms and signs of leukaemia.
They include:​​​​​

  • tiredness / lethargy
  • weakness
  • shortness of breath
  • fever
  • loss of appetite / weight loss
  • night sweats
  • infections that don’t heal
  • bone and joint pain
  • bruising and / or bleeding easily
  • abdominal swelling

If you or a family member are experiencing any of the above symptoms that persist, consult with your doctor.

A leukaemia diagnosis is serious, however, with new advances and research being made each year, treatments and novel therapies are improving. There are also many resources that can help. Visit leukaemia.org.au/ to learn more.


  1. World Health Organization. Leukaemia Fact Sheet. Available here: https://gco.iarc.fr/today/data/factsheets/cancers/36-Leukaemia-fact-sheet.pdf. Accessed February 11, 2021
  2. Schiffer, Charles; Gurbuxani, Sandeep. Clinical manifestations, pathologic features, and diagnosis of acute myeloid leukaemia. UptoDate: Aug 15, 2019. Available here: https://www.uptodate.com/contents/clinical-manifestations-pathologic-features-and-diagnosis-of-acute-myeloid-leukaemia. Accessed February 11, 2021.
  3. Van Etten, Richard. Clinical manifestations and diagnosis of chronic myeloid leukaemia. UptoDate: July 29, 2020. Available here: https://www.uptodate.com/contents/clinical-manifestations-and-diagnosis-of-chronic-myeloid-leukaemia Accessed February 12, 2021.
  4. leukaemia.org.au. Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (ALL). Available here: https://www.leukaemia.org.au/blood-cancer-information/types-of-blood-cancer/leukaemia/acute-lymphoblastic-leukaemia/. Accessed February 12, 2021.
  5. Rai, Kanti; Stilgenbauer, Stephan; Aster, Jon. Clinical features and diagnosis of chronic lymphocytic leukaemia/small lymphocytic lymphoma. UptoDate: Jan 15, 2021. Available here: https://www.uptodate.com/contents/clinical-features-and-diagnosis-of-chronic-lymphocytic-leukaemia-small-lymphocytic-lymphoma. Accessed February 12, 2021.

Last reviewed 07/2021

​​​​​​​External Resources

-Leukaemia Foundation

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