What is acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL)?

This section is for teenagers and young adults. It is about a type of cancer called acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL).

Leukaemia is a cancer that affects the white blood cells in your body. In leukaemia, these white blood cells grow out of control. People with ALL make too many immature blood cells. These are called lymphoblasts, or sometimes they are called blasts. As the lymphoblasts are not mature, they cannot fight infection as normal white blood cells do. These immature cells fill the bone marrow. So there is no space to make the healthy cells your body needs.

Most ALL symptoms are caused by:

  • too many immature cells in the bone marrow
  • too few normal blood cells in your blood.

Symptoms include feeling generally unwell, looking paler and bruising or bleeding more than usual.

We do not know what causes ALL. But you cannot catch it from someone and you cannot pass it on. Some young people with genetic conditions have a higher risk of ALL.

If you think you have any of the symptoms of ALL, you should go to your GP. Other things may be causing the symptoms, but it is important to get checked if you are worried.

Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL)

This section is for teenagers and young adults. It is about a type of cancer called acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL). The other main type of leukaemia that can affect teenagers and young adults is acute myeloid leukaemia. If you have a different type of leukaemia and want to know more, please contact us.

Our section on leukaemia in general has information about ALL for people of all ages. It also has information about other types of leukaemia that are more common in older people.

Knowing a bit about how the body makes blood cells can help you understand leukaemia and its treatment. It might help to watch the short animation on the right about how your blood works.

Leukaemia is a cancer that affects the white blood cells in your body. Normally, white blood cells divide and grow in a controlled way. In leukaemia, this process goes out of control. People with ALL make too many immature blood cells. These are called lymphoblasts, or sometimes they are called blasts. As the lymphoblasts do not mature, they cannot fight infection as normal white blood cells do.

These immature cells fill up the bone marrow. This means there is no space to make the healthy white cells, red cells and platelets your body needs. The body needs these cells to:

  • help us fight infection (white cells)
  • carry oxygen from the lungs around our body (red blood cells)
  • help blood to clot to stop us bleeding and bruising (platelets).


Symptoms

Most ALL symptoms are caused by:

  • too many immature cells in the bone marrow
  • too few normal blood cells in your blood.

Symptoms can include:

  • Looking paler than usual, feeling tired or becoming breathless easily. This is due to having too few red blood cells (anaemia).
  • Having regular headaches or feeling generally unwell, perhaps with a sore throat or mouth.
  • Bruising or bleeding more easily, without any obvious cause. You may have bleeding gums, nosebleeds or heavy bleeding during your period. This is caused by a lack of platelets.
  • Having lots of infections. This is because of a lack of healthy white blood cells to fight infection.
  • Having painful joints and bones
  • Having swollen glands (lymph nodes) in your neck, under your arm or in your groin.
  • Having a fever and sweats. You may have a high temperature without any obvious cause, such as an infection.

Some people find out they have leukaemia through a routine blood test, before they have any symptoms.

Symptoms may appear very quickly over a few weeks. If you have any of these symptoms you should ask your doctor to check them. But remember that other illnesses could be causing them. The cause could be less serious than leukaemia.


Causes

We do not know what causes ALL, but there is research happening to try to find out. Like other cancers, ALL is not infectious. You cannot catch it from someone and you cannot pass it on.

Some young people with genetic conditions have a higher risk of ALL. A genetic condition is something you are born with, such as Down’s syndrome. Children of parents who smoke in the home also have a higher risk of ALL. Having chemotherapy or radiotherapy as a child can also increase your risk of developing ALL when you are older.

We have more information about genetic conditions and cancer for people of all ages.


If you are worried about ALL

If you think you have any of the symptoms of ALL, you should go to your GP. They will talk to you about your symptoms, examine you and arrange tests or refer you to a specialist. Remember that other things may be causing the symptoms. But it is important to get checked if you are worried.

Back to ALL

Having tests for ALL

Talk to your GP if you are worried about symptoms. They can arrange any tests you might need.