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10 things you may not know about leukaemia

written by

Leukaemia Care, Charity

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Today is World Cancer Day, a global event that takes place each year to unite the world’s population in the fight against cancer. It’s a day to raise awareness and educate people about the disease, encouraging them to take action, with the aim to save lives. With this in mind, we have put together ten things that you may not know about leukaemia.

1. What is leukaemia?

Leukaemia is the collective term for different cancers of the bone marrow and blood cells. It leads to the over-production of abnormal cells that do not work properly, stopping the body from making the correct number of white cells, red cells and platelets. This affects the immune system, which defends the body against infection.

2. Are there different types of leukaemia?

There are four main types of leukaemia (as well as other, much rarer types):

3. How many people are diagnosed with leukaemia?

Worldwide, there are around 352,000 people diagnosed with a type of leukaemia each year, with over 8,600 people diagnosed in the UK. This means that every hour, someone in the UK will find out that they have a leukaemia.

4. How common is leukaemia in the UK?

 Leukaemia accounts for 3% of all new cases of cancer in the UK, making it the twelfth most common cancer.

5. Isn’t leukaemia just a childhood cancer?

Although leukaemia is the most common childhood cancer, more than 9 in 10 cases diagnosed are actually diagnosed in adults. Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia is the most common type of leukaemia in children as four-fifths of all leukaemia diagnoses in children are this type.

6. What causes leukaemia?

In most cases of leukaemia there is no obvious cause. Age, however, is a risk factor as most forms of leukaemia are more common in older people. The main exception to this is with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) where the peak incidence is in children, teenagers and young adults.  

7. How quickly does leukaemia progress?

Some forms of leukaemia progress faster than others. Acute leukaemias (AML and ALL) are rapidly developing whereas chronic forms of the disease (CML and CLL) progress more slowly. Treatment options vary significantly depending on the type of leukaemia a patient has, what stage it is at and other factors such a patient’s fitness and whether they have any other conditions.  

8. What are the symptoms of leukaemia?

The symptoms of leukaemia are notoriously vague and non-specific. There are no specific signs of any type of leukaemia which would allow a doctor to make a diagnosis without further tests. Clusters of symptoms that could suggest someone has a leukaemia are:

9. Is leukaemia easy to diagnose?

Because of the vague nature of the symptoms, it is often more difficult for GP’s to diagnose leukaemia.  Between 2006 and 2013, approximately 38% of all leukaemia patients were diagnosed via emergency routes (this could be in A&E or as an emergency GP referral), compared to the average for all cancers which was 22%. In addition, 64% of all patients with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) were diagnosed this way which was the highest percentage of any cancer. Therefore, it is important that more people are aware of leukaemia and its symptoms, encouraging earlier diagnosis. Earlier diagnosis saves lives as it means that treatment begins sooner, which leads to more successful treatment outcomes.  

10. What happens after a leukaemia diagnosis?

If you (or someone you know) are diagnosed with leukaemia it can be a big shock and have a significant emotional impact on you and your family. It is important to remember that although it is an anxious time, you are not alone. Following a leukaemia diagnosis there will be clinicians and nurses who can advise you on your next steps such as treatment options, side effects and symptom control. Don’t forget, we can provide emotional support and advice to anyone affected by leukaemia through our 24/7 CARE Line on 08088 010 444.