Diseases & Conditions



Diseases & Conditions

What is leukemia?

White blood cells are a type of cells in the blood that helps fight infection. Leukemia is a group of cancers that targets these white blood cells (and therefore sometimes referred to as blood cancer). It develops in the bone marrow (the soft inner part of bones) and spreads into the blood and to other organs. There are different types of leukemia according to how fast the disease progresses and to the type of blood cells that is affected.

Leukemia is the 11th most common cancer worldwide and represents 2% of all cancer types.1In Saudi Arabia, the registry of King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center recorded 6,216 cases of leukemia admitted to the hospital between 1975 and 2011.2 The 2014 Saudi cancer registry reported that leukemia ranked third in cancer incidence among men, and fifth among women in 2010.3


What causes leukemia?

Although the exact causes of the leukemia (blood cancer) are still unknown, it seems that genes and environmental factors interact to cause this blood cancer. However, cancer itself is not inherited.4


The following risk factors may increase the risk of developing leukemia:

  • Exposure to high-energy radiation from nuclear power plants
  • Exposure to certain chemicals such as benzene and formaldehyde
  • Certain blood disorders
  • Previous chemotherapy and radiation therapy
  • Certain genetic disorders, such as Down syndrome
  • Some types of viruses can cause leukemia such as hepatitis B and AIDS
  • In rare cases, if members of the family have been diagnosed with leukemia


What are the signs and symptoms of leukemia?

Some of the warning signs of leukemia include:5

  • Fever, chills and other flu-like symptoms
  • Tiredness, weakness and fatigue
  • Infections that do not go away or keep coming back
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Swollen lymph nodes that are usually painless
  • Enlargement of the spleen or liver
  • Bruising easily
  • Tiny red spots under the skin
  • Swollen or bleeding gums
  • Sweating, especially at night
  • Aches in bones or joints (for example, knees, hips or shoulders)
  • Anemia


How is leukemia diagnosed?

It is important to diagnose leukemia as early as possible so that treatment can be started to provide the best chance of success.6


  • Physical examination: To see if the patient has enlarged lymph nodes, enlarged spleen or liver, possible signs of infection, or areas of bleeding or bruising.
  • Blood tests: A complete blood count is used to diagnose leukemia. This blood test may show high or low levels of white cells and show leukemia cells in the blood.
  • Bone marrow biopsy: This is a procedure to remove a sample of bone marrow to look for leukemia cells.
  • Surgical lymph node biopsy: This procedure consists of removing an entire lymph node to look for leukemia cells.
  • Lumbar puncture: This test is used to look for leukemia cells in the cerebrospinal fluid, which is the liquid found in the brain and the spinal cord.


  • Imaging tests:
    • X-rays
    • Ultrasound
    • Computed tomography (CT) scan
    • Magnetic resonance imagery (MRI) scan
    • Bone scan

What are the treatments for leukemia?

The main types of treatment used for leukemia are:7

  • Chemotherapy is the major form of treatment for leukemia that uses chemicals to kill cancer cells. These drugs are either injected into a vein or taken as pills.


  • Biological therapy. Biological therapy works by using treatments that help the immune system recognize and attack leukemia cells.


  • Targeted therapy. Targeted therapy uses drugs that target specific parts of blood cancer cells.


  • Radiation therapy. Radiation therapy uses X-rays to kill blood cancer cell and stop their growth.


  • Stem cell transplant. A stem cell transplant is a procedure to replace the damaged bone marrow with a healthy one.


  1. Ferlay, Jacques, et al. "Cancer incidence and mortality worldwide: sources, methods and major patterns in GLOBOCAN 2012." International Journal of Cancer 136.5 (2015): E359-E386.
  2. King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre. Tumor Registry Annual Report 2011. Riyadh (KSA): Oncology Centre Research Unit (KFSHRC); 2011. Available from URL: http://www.kfshrc.edu.sa/oncology/Tumor%202011%20New%206%20Final.pdf
  3. Saudi Cancer Registry. Cancer Incidence Report in Saudi Arabia. Riyadh (KSA): Ministry of Health; 2010. Available from URL: http://www.chs.gov.sa/Ar/mediacenter/NewsLetter/2010%20Report%20(1).pdf
  4. "Leukemia." Centre for Arab Genomic Studies. Web. 25 Nov. 2015. <http://www.cags.org.ae/gme2cancersenleukemia.pdf>.
  5. "Questions and Answers About Leukemia." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Web. 25 Nov. 2015. <http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/radiation/phase2/mleukemi.pdf>.
  6. How is childhood leukemia diagnosed? (How is childhood leukemia diagnosed?) http://www.cancer.org/cancer/leukemiainchildren/detailedguide/childhood-leukemia-diagnosis
  7. Leukemia (Treatments and drugs). http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/leukemia/basics/treatment/con-20024914