Signs and symptoms of leukaemia
Symptoms can depend on how quickly a leukaemia (also spelt leukemia) develops. You should see your GP if you notice any of these leukaemia symptoms.
Leukaemia (sometimes spelt as leukemia) is a cancer of the blood cells. If you have leukaemia, your body makes some abnormal blood cells. These leukaemia cells behave differently from healthy blood cells.
Symptoms can depend on how quickly a leukaemia develops.
Slower growing leukaemias such as chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL) and chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) may cause no symptoms in the early stages. They may be discovered by chance after a routine blood test. If you do have symptoms, these may be mild and develop gradually. The symptoms can be confused with the symptoms of more common illnesses, such as flu.
Faster growing leukaemias such as acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) or acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) are more likely to cause symptoms that appear over a few weeks. People often feel ill quite quickly. Most symptoms of acute leukaemia are caused by leukaemia cells filling the bone marrow. This means healthy blood cells do not move into the blood as normal.
If you have any of the following symptoms, you should always tell your doctor and have them checked. But remember, these symptoms can also be caused by many other illnesses.
Leukaemia can stop your body making red blood cells normally. A low number of red blood cells is called anaemia. If you have anaemia, you might:
- look pale
- feel very tired – this is a very common symptom
- feel short of breath
- feel dizzy or lightheaded
- have palpitations (feel your heart is beating quickly).
Useful words to know
When you are dealing with leukaemia, you may come across lots of new words and not know what they mean.
Some of these words are explained here. If you need more information or support, you can call the Macmillan Support Line free on 0808 808 00 00.
Something which develops and progresses quickly.
Something which develops slowly.
Small bean-shaped structures that are part of the immune system, which helps the body fight infection and disease. Lymph nodes are sometimes called lymph glands. They are connected by lymph vessels.
A type of white blood cell which fights and prevents infection.
A type of stem cell that makes red blood cells, platelets and some types of white blood cell.
When a person sweats a lot at night, enough to soak through bedclothes and bedding.
Changes in the body that suggest a person may be unwell or have an illness.
Below is a sample of the sources used in our leukaemia (leukemia) information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Heuser M et al. Acute myeloid leukaemia in adult patients: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up. Annals of Oncology, 2020, vol 3, issue 6. Available from www.esmo.org/ [accessed 2021].
Hochhaus A, Saussele S, Rosti G, et al. Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines. Annals of Oncology, 2017; 28 (suppl 4), iv41-iv51. Available from https://www.esmo.org/ [accessed on October 2020].
Eichhorst B et al. Chronic lymphocytic leukaemia: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up. ESMO Guidelines Committee. October 2020.
This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editor, Dr Anne Parker, Consultant Haematologist.
Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.
The language we use
We want everyone affected by cancer to feel our information is written for them.
We want our information to be as clear as possible. To do this, we try to:
- use plain English
- explain medical words
- use short sentences
- use illustrations to explain text
- structure the information clearly
- make sure important points are clear.
We use gender-inclusive language and talk to our readers as ‘you’ so that everyone feels included. Where clinically necessary we use the terms ‘men’ and ‘women’ or ‘male’ and ‘female’. For example, we do so when talking about parts of the body or mentioning statistics or research about who is affected.
You can read more about how we produce our information here.
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