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What Is Leukemia?

Cancer happens when cells in the body begin changing in ways that aren't normal. Cancer that starts in blood cells is called leukemia.

Image of abnormal white blood cells.

Understanding the blood

Blood is made up of cells and fluid. The body constantly replaces old blood cells with new ones to keep the blood healthy. New blood cells are made in the bone marrow (the spongy substance inside bones). One type of blood cells is the white blood cells. These help the body fight off infections and disease.

When leukemia forms

Leukemia is usually a cancer of the white blood cells. When leukemia happens, the body makes many abnormal white blood cells or too many immature white blood cells (blasts) that aren't able to do the work that normal white blood cells do. More abnormal than normal cells are made. This leaves the blood unable to do its work. There are 4 major types of leukemias:

  • Leukemia can be myeloid or lymphocytic. These terms refer to the type of cell that the cancer starts in.

  • Leukemia can be acute or chronic. Acute leukemias get worse very quickly. Chronic leukemias get worse gradually.

Image of normal blood.

Treatment choices for leukemia

You and your healthcare provider will discuss a treatment plan that's best for your needs. The main treatment choices for leukemia include:

  • Chemotherapy, which uses strong medicines to kill cancer cells.

  • Targeted therapy, which uses drugs that attack parts of leukemia cells that make them different from normal cells. 

  • Immunotherapy, which strengthens the body's own immune system to help fight cancer after a person gets high doses of chemotherapy. 

  • A stem cell transplant, which removes the tissues or cells that make blood cells and replaces them with healthy tissues or cells.

  • Radiation therapy, which uses strong doses of radiation to help prevent or treat leukemia in certain parts of the body. 

Online Medical Reviewer: Alteri, Rick, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Cunningham, Louise, RN
Date Last Reviewed: 9/28/2015
© 2000-2016 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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