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Hematologic Malignancies Program

Patient and Family Education

Overview of Leukemia

What is leukemia?


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Leukemia is cancer of the blood cells, usually the white blood cells. Leukemia cells look different than normal cells and do not function properly. The American Cancer Society estimates that 44,790 new cases of leukemia were diagnosed in the United States in 2009.

What are the types of leukemia?

There are four main types of leukemia, which can be further divided into subtypes. When classifying the type of leukemia, the first steps are to determine if the cancer is:

  1. lymphocytic or myelogenous leukemia: Cancer can occur in either the lymphoid or myeloid white blood cells.
    • When the cancer develops in the lymphocytes (lymphoid cells), it is called lymphocytic leukemia.
    • When the cancer develops in the granulocytes or monocytes (myeloid cells), it is called myelogenous leukemia.

  2. acute or chronic leukemia: Leukemia is either acute or chronic.
    • acute leukemia
      The new or immature cells, called blasts, remain very immature and cannot perform their functions. The blasts increase in number rapidly, and the disease progresses quickly.
    • chronic leukemia
      There are some blast cells present, but they are more mature and are able to perform some of their functions. The cells grow more slowly, and the number increases less quickly, so the disease progresses gradually.

Based on these findings, the leukemia is then classified into one of the four main types of leukemia:

There are also other types and subtypes of leukemia, including hairy cell leukemia, a rare form of leukemia in which hairy-looking cancer cells invade the blood and bone marrow.

What are the symptoms of leukemia?

Although each individual experiences symptoms differently, the following are the most common symptoms for leukemia:

In addition, acute leukemia may cause the following symptoms:

Chronic leukemia may affect the skin, central nervous system, digestive tract, kidneys, and testicles. The symptoms of acute and chronic leukemia may resemble other blood disorders or medical problems, so it is important to see a doctor about any of these symptoms.

How are leukemias diagnosed and treated?

To learn more about the symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of leukemia, see the following detail pages:

Acute Myeloid Leukemia

Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia

Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia
Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia
Hairy Cell Leukemia

The University of Maryland Marlene and Stewart Greenebaum Cancer Center treats most forms of leukemia in its Hematologic Malignancies Program , which is staffed by a multidisciplinary team of physicians and researchers who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of cancers of the blood. Children with leukemia are treated in the Center's Pediatric Oncology Program. UMGCC also has a Blood and Marrow Transplant Program, which specializes in transplants for patients with leukemia and other cancers.

To make an appointment or to talk with someone about our treatment programs and services, call our toll-free number: 1-800-888-8823

This page was last updated on: December 18, 2012.

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