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What is leukaemia?

Leukaemia is a cancer of blood originating from bone marrow. Bone marrow is an organ presence in every human bone that is producing blood cells. Leukemic cells is an abnormal cancer cells capable of rapidly proliferating and long lasting compared to normal blood cells. With these reasons, they can disturb normal marrow functions and prevent normal blood cells production.

There are various types of leukaemias and it is extremely important to recognize which type of leukaemia the patient might be affected with. It is important to know the type because management and prognosis of each type would be different from each other.

There are two major types of leukaemia; acute leukaemia and chronic leukaemia. The major different between the two would be the maturity and the rapidity of proliferation of the cancer cells. Acute leukaemia consists of immature cancer cells and can proliferate very rapid. The chronic types have the more mature cells which proliferate slower than those cells in acute form.

Each type of lekaemia can be further differentiated into two major form,depend on the origin of the cells either from myeloid or lymphoid. Hence, there are 4 main groups of leukaemia:

  • Acute lymphoblastic Leukaemia (ALL)
  • Chronic Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (CLL)
  • Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML)
  • Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia (CML)

What causes leukaemia

It is known that leukaemia can occur when there is significant damage to the genetic material of the cell.Usually the cause of the damage cannot be identified, but the effects can be seen clearly using sophisticated technology.

There are several factors that can increase a person’s risk of getting leukaemia. For example;

  • Exposure  to radiation
  • Previous exposure to chemotherapy
  • Exposure to certain chemical substances. E.g benzene.
  • People with inborn genetic disorders

Signs and Symptoms of Leukaemia

Signs and symptoms of leukaemia come from the fact that bone marrow has failed to produce normal blood cells. The main symptoms include lethargy because of low red blood cells, bruises, or bleeding manifestation due to low platelet and prolonged fever. Other manifestations would be loss of appetite, significant weight loss and pain in the bones and joints.


If left untreated, serious bleeding manifestation such as intracranial bleeding can occur in additional to bacterial and fungal infections. As a sequel of low red blood cells, the patients may have chest pain and difficulty in breathing. Usually, the patients with untreated acute leukaemia would not survive very long.

Leukaemia is neither contagious nor inherited


Leukaemia can be diagnosed by performing bone marrow examination. In this procedure, bone marrow sampling will be taken from bone marrow usually at the hip bone. This is a safe procedure and only need local anaesthesia. There will be few special tests done on the bone marrow sampling to identify leukaemic cells.


Currently, leukaemia can be treated using appropriate therapy. Management will depend on type of leukaemia. Patients with acute leukaemia need invasive chemotherapy and followed with stem cell transplantation in certain circumstances. The aim of treatment is to completely destroy leukaemic cells for the normal cells to regenerate and repopulate the marrow space. Stem cell transplantation will be suggested for high risk cases to relapse. Wth recent latest therapy, patients with leukaemia can be cured.

Chronic leukaemia can be controlled with oral medication. For example, patient with chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) can take oral medication called tyrosine kinase inhibitor to succefully suppress their diseases. Now, patients with CML can lead long normal life without any evidence of disease.

Today, treatment for leukaemia has advanced and many clinical trials have been carried out to find the best and safest therapy. The patients with incurable disease in the past, now can look forward for a brighter future and hope that this disease can be cured completely


Last Reviewed : 10 February 2015
Writer : Dr. Jameela Sathar
Translator : Dr. Sinari bt. Salleg
Akreditor : Dr. Ilunihayati bt. Ibrahim