Blood cells are created in bone marrow – the soft, spongy stuff inside your bones. If everything is working well, red blood cells (which carry oxygen), white blood cells (which fight infection) and platelets (which stop bleeding) are created when your body needs them.
If you have leukaemia, though, too many white blood cells are released, and they stop the normal cells in your bone marrow from growing. As a result, the amount of normal red cells, white cells and platelets in your blood is reduced – and this causes a range of problems.
There are lots of different types of leukaemia. The most common ones in young people are acute lymphoblastic leukaemia and acute myeloid leukaemia. These have similar symptoms and are treated in similar ways, but are caused by different types of abnormal white blood cells being produced.
Common symptoms of leukaemia include:
- Exhaustion, breathlessness, dizziness, headaches and pale skin – caused by a lack of red blood cells
- Frequent infections that won’t go away – caused by a lack of healthy white cells
- Bruising easily or unusual bleeding – like nosebleeds, very heavy periods or bloody gums when you brush your teeth. These are all caused by a lack of platelets.
Other signs to look out for include:
- High temperature
- Night sweats
- Weight loss
- Stomach pain.
How’s it diagnosed?
Your doctor will check initially for physical signs of leukaemia – like swollen glands – and take a blood test. If the test shows abnormal levels of white blood cells or low numbers of normal blood cells, you’ll be referred to a specialist. A sample of bone marrow is then usually taken using a needle, so it can be examined under a microscope to confirm if you have leukaemia and, if you do, which type.
You can find out more about techniques used to identify cancer in our Getting diagnosed section.
How’s it treated?
Treatment for acute leukaemia happens in stages. The first stage is designed to kill leukaemia cells in your bone marrow and get your blood back to normal. The second stage aims to stop leukaemia coming back.
The exact treatment depends on which type of leukaemia you have, but chemotherapy is usually the main element, sometimes in combination with radiotherapy. And it does take time – treatment usually lasts around four months for acute myeloid leukaemia and between two months and three years for acute lymphoblastic leukaemia.