Nearly 400,000 Americans are currently living with (or in remission from) leukemia. The cancer type occurs most often in adults over age 55, but it’s also the most common cancer in kids under age 15. The good news is more people than ever before are surviving leukemia. Whatever your diagnosis and treatment plan, Mercy is ready to help you leave leukemia behind and get back to the life you love.

What is Leukemia?

Leukemia is cancer of the blood cells in the bone marrow ― the spongy tissue inside your bones where blood cells develop. Leukemia usually occurs when abnormal white blood cells grow out of control, which prevents your body from producing the healthy cells it needs to fight infection.

Leukemia can also prevent your bone marrow from producing healthy red blood cells and platelets. These cells carry oxygen throughout your body and help your blood clot. Eventually, leukemia enters the bloodstream, spreading throughout the body. Unlike other cancers, leukemia doesn’t form tumors that can be seen on imaging tests.

Leukemia has several types, depending on how fast it grows and the specific cells involved. Doctors classify leukemia based on its speed of progression & the type of cells involved. It can be either acute (fast-growing) or chronic (slower-growing) and affect the lymphocytes (lymphocytic leukemia) or other immune cells (myeloid leukemia)


  • Acute leukemia develops rapidly and must be treated right away, while chronic leukemia is slow-growing and may go unnoticed for years.
  • Myeloid leukemia occurs from myeloid cells, which turn into red and white blood cells and platelets.
  • Lymphocytic leukemia occurs in lymphoid cells, which are part of the body’s immune system.

Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML)

AML often occurs in early forms of white blood cells but can develop in other cells. It spreads quickly throughout the body and can be difficult to treat. AML is most common in older adults.

Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL)

ALL develops from early lymphoid cells, a type of white blood cell. It progresses quickly and can become life-threatening within months if left untreated. ALL is more common in children than in adults.

Chronic Myeloid Leukemia (CML)

Also known as chronic myelogenous leukemia, CML is slow-growing and occurs when the bone marrow makes too many white blood cells. About 15% of adult leukemias are CML.

Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL)

CLL develops from lymphoid cells and is slow-growing, sometimes not causing symptoms for years. It mostly affects older adults and accounts for about one-third of all leukemias.

Doctors are unsure why the cell changes that cause leukemia to happen. However, there are certain risk factors that can increase your chance of developing the disease, including:

Age & Gender

Your risk of developing most types of leukemia increases with age. On average, people who develop AML, CLL and CML are age 65 or older. But ALL most often occurs under age 20. And men develop leukemia more often than women.

Chemical Exposure

Smoking, working with pesticides and exposure to industrial chemicals raise your risk of developing leukemia.

Family History

Leukemia isn’t usually inherited. But if you have a first-degree relative with CLL or an identical twin with AML or ALL, you may be at an increased risk.

Congenital Conditions

Congenital (present at birth) conditions like Down syndrome, Fanconi anemia, Bloom syndrome, ataxia-telangiectasia and Blackfan-Diamond syndrome raise the risk of developing AML.

Common symptoms of leukemia include:


  • Chronic fatigue or weakness
  • Frequent infections
  • Persistent fever or chills
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Enlarged spleen
  • Frequent nosebleeds
  • Abnormal bruising
  • Night sweats

Diagnosing & Treating Leukemia

Mercy’s hematologists specialize in diagnosing and treating leukemia and other blood diseases. They provide the expertise and compassionate care people with leukemia need to enjoy fuller healthier lives. If you or a loved one has leukemia, you can also have hope. Mercy offers treatments to help you restore healthy bone marrow, rebuild your immune system and reclaim your quality of life.

Several tools and tests are used to diagnose leukemia, including:


  • Physical exams to check for signs like swollen lymph nodes
  • Blood tests, such as a complete blood count
  • Bone marrow tests to collect and test marrow or bone
  • Imaging tests like CT and MRI scans
  • Lumbar puncture (spinal tap) to collect and test spinal fluid

Mercy provides personalized care plans using the most effective treatments to help you fight leukemia. Depending on the type of leukemia and how fast it’s growing, your treatments may include:


One or more types of medication may be used to destroy leukemia cells or keep them from growing or spreading. Medications may be given through an IV, orally or both.


Chemotherapy is a medication that destroys leukemia cells to keep them from growing or multiplying. It may be given alone or with other treatments like radiation therapy.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy uses high doses of radiation to kill leukemia cells or keep them from growing. External beam radiation therapy uses machines outside the body to aim high-energy x-rays (or beams) at leukemia cells.

Targeted Therapy

Targeted therapy identifies and attacks specific molecules (molecular targets) on cancer cells that help them grow and spread.


Immunotherapy helps the immune system attack leukemia cells by boosting immunity or changing how it functions.

Stem Cell Transplant

If your Mercy hematologist or specialist feels a stem cell transplant (otherwise known as a bone marrow transplant) is right for you, you’ll be referred to an appropriate transplant center.

Molecular Therapy for Leukemia

Dr. Bethany Sleckman

Learn more about this specific form of targeted therapy for treating leukemia.

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Cancer Clinical Trials

Discover how you can participate in an oncology clinical trial. Learn more.  

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