Leukaemia Myths

There are many myths about leukaemia. Get yourself clued up with the following guide

1. Myth: Leukaemia is not a cancer

Our recent survey revealed that whilst the majority of people had heard of leukaemia before diagnosis, around two thirds were unaware that leukaemia is a cancer of the blood.

2. Myth: ‘Leukaemia’ refers to one condition

“Leuk” means white and “aemia” refers to a condition of the blood. Therefore, leukaemia is a catch-all phrase for cancers of the white blood cells.

There are actually four main types and further subtypes of leukaemia, which present in very different ways.

3. Myth: Leukaemia is a disease that only affects children 

Leukaemia is the most common childhood cancer, accounting for 1 in 3 cancer cases, but children (under the age of 16) represent a very small proportion of all leukaemia patients. In fact, two thirds of leukaemia patients are over the age of 65 years old.

Our ‘Leukaemia: I wasn’t born yesterday’ report highlights the challenges faced by leukaemia patients over the age of 65.

4. Myth: The symptoms of cancer are very specific

The problem with leukaemia symptoms is that they are vague and non-specific, meaning that the majority of people (83%) do not suspect they have cancer before diagnosis. Many patients report believing that their symptoms were caused by a common infection, a busy lifestyle or simply getting older.

You can use our symptoms cards to learn the symptoms most commonly experienced by patients at different ages prior to diagnosis.

5. Myth: You can tell someone has leukaemia because they look ill

There may be points along the leukaemia journey where patients are experiencing more effects from either the leukaemia or treatment. Prior to diagnosis, leukaemia may cause people to lose weight, look pale and have more bruising than normal, amongst other symptoms.

Many chronic leukaemia patients following diagnosis, however, will be living with leukaemia and appear physically well because their symptoms can be well managed by treatments.

6. Myth: All leukaemia patients have to be treated straight away

Over 95% of acute leukaemia patients begin treatment straight away following diagnosis, because of the quickly progressing nature of the cancer. The majority of chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) patients will also start treatment with a daily tablet as soon as possible after diagnosis.

On the other hand, only 1 in 3 chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL) patients will need to start treatment straight away. Others will be put on ‘watch and wait’, meaning their leukaemia is monitored regularly and treatment is only started when necessary. You can download our “Watch and Wait” booklet for more information.

7. Myth: Leukaemia patients will lose their hair from treatment

Chemotherapy is the currently the main treatment used for most leukaemia types and, therefore, some patients may lose their hair. Contrary to popular belief, however, not all chemotherapy treatments cause hair loss.

As mentioned before, the majority of CML patients (~95%) are treated very successfully with a daily tablet, which is a tyrosine kinase inhibitor (TKI) drug. This drug targets a specific mutation in the leukaemia cells and does not normally cause hair loss.

8. Myth: Leukaemia is incurable

Treatment of acute leukaemia can be very successful in patients fit enough to tolerate the intensive treatments. Children under the age of 14 years old, for example, have survival rates approaching 90%

Allogenic stem cell transplants involve transferring healthy blood stem cells from a donor to the patient, replacing those destroyed by chemotherapy. This treatment has shown to be curative for some leukaemia patients.

There are also ongoing studies to identify whether CML patients will remain in long-term, treatment-free remission following removal of their tablets. To some, this is considered a cure.

9. Myth: Leukaemia is curable

Unfortunately, with two thirds of leukaemia patients being over the age of 65 years old, many are not fit enough to tolerate the intensive treatments.

Chronic leukaemia is also currently considered as treatable and not typically curable. The slow progression of the cancer does, however, mean that most patients will have a normal life-expectancy.

10. Myth: There is nothing we can do to improve the outcomes for patients

38% of leukaemia patients are diagnosed upon emergency presentation, which is much higher than the national cancer average of 22%. Late diagnosis of leukaemia can significantly impact the outcomes of patients in relation to both survival and quality of life.

Spot Leukaemia is our latest campaign aiming to improve early diagnosis by increasing knowledge of leukaemia and awareness of the signs and symptoms to both the public and primary healthcare professionals. Early diagnosis saves lives.