About leukaemia

Leukaemia is cancer of the blood and bone marrow. Unlike other cancers, leukaemia does not typically produce lump-like tumours but results in overproduction of cancerous white blood cells.

The blood contains three main types of cells:

  • white cells fight infection
  • red cells carry oxygen
  • platelets help with clot formation

All these cells are suspended in liquid plasma. Every day, hundreds of billions of new blood cells are produced in the bone marrow – most of them red cells. When people develop leukaemia, the body starts producing more white cells than it needs. Many of the extra white cells do not mature normally, but they tend to live much longer than their normal life span.

Despite their vast numbers, the leukemic cells are unable to help fight infection the way normal white blood cells do. As they increase, they interfere with vital organ functions, and get in the way of the production of healthy blood cells. Eventually the body cannot produce enough red cells to supply oxygen, enough platelets to ensure proper clotting, or enough normal white cells to fight infection. This means that people with leukaemia often become anaemic and susceptible to bruising, bleeding and infection.

Leukaemias are classified as acute or chronic. Cancer cells in acute leukaemia start multiplying before they develop beyond their immature stage. Chronic leukaemia progresses more slowly, with cancer cells often developing to full maturity. Leukaemia is further categorised according to the type of white blood cell involved. There are two broad categories:

  • Myeloid leukaemia
  • Lymphoid leukaemia

For each type of leukaemia, the treatment plan may be different.

  • Read Billie's experience of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia here.
  • In remission: Read Debbie's experience of acute promyelocytic leukaemia here.
  • Jessica was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia. Read her story here.
  • Living with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia. Read Debbie's story here.