What Is Leukemia?

Leukemia is a cancer of your blood cells. Blood cells are produced in your bone marrow, which is the soft interior of your bones. Normally, blood cells are made in an orderly, controlled way. When leukemia develops, blood cells do not develop normally. An overproduction of immature cells then fills up the space in the bone marrow. As a result, normal blood cells that are responsible for fighting infections and preventing bleeding are under produced.

What causes leukemia?

In the vast majority of cases, leukemia has no known cause. In some cases, leukemia may be related to prolonged or significant exposure to radiation, some environmental chemicals (e.g. benzene), or certain types of chemotherapy. People with certain bone marrow disorders, such as myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) and myeloproliferative diseases (MPD) have higher risks of developing leukemia.

How is leukemia diagnosed?

  • Blood Tests: You will have blood tests drawn to determine if there are abnormal leukemia cells in your blood stream and if the number of normal white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets are outside normal ranges.
  • Bone Marrow Biopsy: Leukemia is diagnosed with a bone marrow biopsy. This test involves taking a sample of your bone marrow to be examined microscopically for abnormalities.
  • Genetic Testing: Your bone marrow cells are also tested for genetic markers to provide additional information about your leukemia that will help determine what type of treatment may be needed for you, as well as to provide prognostic information about your specific type of leukemia.
  • Lumbar Puncture: Some forms of leukemia are known to enter the central nervous system. A lumbar puncture (spinal tap) will remove a sample of your spinal fluid to see whether it contains any leukemia cells.
  • Radiology Testing: A chest X-ray/MRI/PET Scan/CAT scans can indicate if you have an infectious process in your lungs and if you have enlarged lymph nodes. If scans suggest you have leukemia in areas of your body outside of your bone marrow, a biopsy may be done to verify this finding. You may receive repeat scans to monitor these areas.

What is the best treatment for me?

The decision about what treatment options are best for you involves a detail discussion between yourself, your doctor, and family members. Your physician will provide you with specific treatment information based on the type of leukemia you were diagnosed with. Prior to initiating treatment, your physician will determine the combination of chemotherapy drugs that will best treat your leukemia.

The Leukemia Program is involved in state-of-the-art leukemia clinical research trials through pharmaceutical sponsored clinical trials, NCI Cooperative Groups and investigator initiated clinical trials.