What Are the Causes of Leukemia?

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Many people wonder what causes leukemia. Extensive studies are underway, but researchers have not yet identified the precise causes of the condition.

How does leukemia form?

Some scientists believe that leukemia results from an as-of-yet undetermined combination of genetic and environmental factors that can lead to mutations in the cells that make up the bone marrow. These mutations, known as leukemic changes, cause the cells to grow and divide very rapidly. The resulting unhealthy cells can outnumber the healthy white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets within the body, rendering the blood less effective at doing its job. Because of this, a leukemia patient might bleed, bruise or become fatigued very easily, and also might be highly susceptible to infection.

Types of leukemia

Leukemia is broadly categorized as acute or chronic. Acute leukemias are more aggressive and involve immature blood cells, whereas chronic leukemias tend to develop more slowly and involve mature blood cells. Leukemia is further classified by the type of cells that are affected, with the four main types being:

  • Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL)
  • Acute myelogenous leukemia (AML)
  • Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)
  • Chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML)

Risk factors that can cause leukemia

While the exact cause of leukemia – or any cancer, for that matter – is unknown, there are several risk factors that have been identified, such as radiation exposure, previous cancer treatment and being over the age of 65. With regard to the specific genetic and environmental factors that are thought to be linked to leukemia, and what causes bone marrow cells to mutate, researchers are evaluating certain combinations of:

  • A genetic predisposition
  • Down syndrome
  • Human T-lymphotropic virus (HTLV)
  • Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
  • Exposure to petrochemicals, such as benzene
  • Extensive exposure to artificial ionizing radiation
  • Alkylating chemotherapy agents administered to treat other types of cancer
  • Tobacco use
  • Use of certain hair dyes

Why choose Moffitt for leukemia treatment

As a high-volume cancer center, Moffitt Cancer Center diagnoses and treats a large number of leukemia patients. Some key factors that distinguish Moffitt from other providers include our multispecialty approach, highly specialized expertise and robust clinical trials. There is a growing need in the community for aggressive therapies and supportive patient care, and Moffitt is meeting that need.

In addition, as a leader in cancer research, Moffitt has received national recognition for its efforts to discover exactly what causes leukemia. Most notably, we have been designated a National Cancer Institute Comprehensive Cancer Center – the only one based in Florida. Through our highly focused work, we continue to transform the diagnosis and treatment of all types of leukemia. As a result, our patient outcomes and survival rates outrank national averages and our patients enjoy an enhanced quality of life.

Medically reviewed by Chetasi Talati, MD, Malignant Hematology.

If you would like to meet with the knowledgeable cancer experts at Moffitt to discuss their thoughts on what causes leukemia, call 1-888-663-3488 or complete a new patient registration form online. We do not require referrals.