Munson Health
Leukemia -- Adult

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by Jones P

Risk Factors

These risk factors are thought to be related to leukemia. Tell your doctor if you have any of these risk factors:


If you have any of these symptoms, do not assume it is due to leukemia. They can also vary depending on the type of leukemia and where the cancer cells are located. Tell your doctor if you have any of these:
Excess leukemia cells can gather in different parts of the body and organs creating:
  • Pain in the bones or joints
  • Puffy gums
  • Rash
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Swelling of testicles
  • Swelling or discomfort in the abdomen (from enlarged spleen)
  • Swollen lymph nodes (particularly in neck or armpit)
  • Weight loss
  • Meningitis with headache, nausea, loss of muscle control, seizures, symptoms of stroke


Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. The doctor will check for swelling of the liver, spleen, or lymph nodes in the armpits, groin, and neck.
Tests may include the following:
If cancer cells are found, additional tests may be done. These tests check if the cancer has spread and what systems may already be affected.
  • Lumbar puncture—removal of liquid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord
  • Chest x-rays—to look for signs of cancer in the chest
  • CT scan—type of x-ray that uses a computer to make pictures of structures inside the body
  • MRI scan—test that uses magnetic waves to make pictures of structures inside the body
  • Ultrasound—test that uses sound waves to examine masses and organs inside the body
  • Positron emission tomography (PET)—test makes images that show the amount of activity in body tissues


The goal for acute leukemia is to destroy all signs of the disease and return the blood and bone marrow to normal. Chronic leukemia is rarely curable. Treatment focuses on slowing disease progression.
Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Options include the following:


  • Imatinib mesylate (Gleevec)—used to treat myeloid leukemia by reducing the number of cancer cells in the blood and bone marrow
  • Nilotinib—targeted therapy similar to imatinib
  • Dasatinib—targeted therapy similar to imatinib (if leukemia cells become resistant to imatinib)
These drugs can cause infertility and early menopause . Talk to your doctor about your fertility options before you start treatment.
Your doctor may prescribe medicine to stimulate the production of healthy blood cells, such as:
  • Filgrastim (Neupogen)
  • Pegfilgrastim (Neulasta)
  • Epoetin alpha (Procrit, Epogen)


Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. It may be given in many forms including pill, injection, and via a catheter. The drugs enter the bloodstream and travel through the body killing mostly cancer cells. Some healthy cells are killed as well. The specific combination of drugs will depend on the type of leukemia, your age, and condition.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy is a type of treatment that uses radiation to kill cancer cells. Typically, it is only used to prepare for a bone marrow transplant or in some cases of chronic leukemia.


  • Blood transfusions—Healthy blood cells from a donor are given through an intravenous line (IV). This may be done if the leukemia is causing shortness of breath, fatigue, or severe bleeding.
  • Bone marrow transplant—Stem cells from a donor’s healthy bone marrow are injected in you. Stem cells can make all types of blood cells. Once injected into your bloodstream, the stem cells should make healthy blood cells.
  • Splenectomy—The spleen may need to be removed if it becomes congested with leukemia cells.

Biological Therapy (Immunotherapy)

The therapy uses medications or substances made by the body to improve your body’s defense against cancer. This type of treatment is still fairly new and under investigation. Talk with you doctor about whether this treatment is an option for you and about clinical trials in your area.


American Cancer Society

The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society

National Cancer Institute



Canadian Cancer Society

Sick Kids



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Conn HF, Rakel RE. Conn's Current Therapy 2001. 53rd ed. Philadelphia, PA: WB Saunders Company; 2001.

Leukemia. The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society website. Available at: Accessed October 10, 2008.

Leukemia. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: Accessed October 10, 2008.

Noble J. Textbook of Primary Care Medicine. 3rd ed. St. Louis, MO: Mosby, Inc.; 2001.

A PET scan may improve leukemia care. UW HealthAvailable website. Available at: Accessed November 2, 2009.

What is leukemia? American Cancer Society website. Available at: Accessed October 10, 2008.


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