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Early Symptoms of Leukemia

Early symptoms of leukemia, a sometimes deadly cancer that affects the bone marrow and blood, are often hard to detect.

Unexplained fevers can be an early symptom of leukemia. [© Shutterstock, 2010]
© Shutterstock, 2010
Unexplained fevers can be an early symptom of leukemia.

Early Symptoms of Leukemia

Early symptoms of leukemia, a sometimes deadly cancer that affects the bone marrow and blood, are often hard to detect. According to The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, Leukemia occurs 10 times more frequently in adults than in children, and usually strikes adults who are aged 50 or older. Leukemias overproduction of white blood cells uses additional energy that most often causes low-grade fever, unexplained weight loss, fatigue or shortness of breath. Additional common symptoms include abnormal bleeding and bruising, chronic joint pain and infections. Some forms of leukemia can go undiagnosed if someone mistakenly attributes these general symptoms to another medical condition. In fact, someone with chronic leukemia can even appear in good health.

Types of Leukemia

The rate at which leukemia progresses and how the bone marrow and blood are affected depends on the type of leukemia. According to the American Cancer Society, there are four types of leukemia: acute lymphocytic, chronic lymphocytic, acute myeloid and chronic myeloid. Acute forms of leukemia develop rapidly and require immediate treatment for the person to survive more than a few months. However, patients who are cured or go into remission can live for many years. Patients with chronic forms of leukemia have more functioning white blood cells and the disease typically develops slowly over years. Chronic lymphocytic and acute myeloid are the most common forms in adults, while children are most likely to have acute lymphocytic leukemia. While lymphocytic leukemia affects the bone marrow cells that would normally become lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell), myeloid leukemia affects white blood cells as well as red blood cells and platelets.

Leukemia Risk Factors

According to the Mayo Clinic, the cause of leukemia is unknown. Researchers believe a combination of environmental and genetic factors put someone at risk for developing this form of cancer. Radiation, chemotherapy and certain industrial chemicals like benzene are known risk factors, but the rate of occurrence is still very small. Leukemia also has an association with certain genetic disorders such as Down Syndrome.

Early Symptoms of Acute Leukemia

In acute leukemia, the overproduction of immature white blood cells crowds out the production of normal blood cells. When someone has lymphocytic leukemia, the body doesnt have the necessary number of white blood cells to fight infection. Someone with myeloid leukemia may also have anemia from a shortage of red blood cells, as well as bruise and bleed easily from an underproduction of palettes. The following symptoms may be present in either lymphocytic or myeloid acute leukemia:

  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath during physical activity
  • Pale skin
  • Unexplained fever
  • Prolonged bleeding from minor cuts
  • Bruising with no apparent cause
  • Tiny, red spots under the skin


Someone with lymphocytic leukemia may also have enlarged lymph nodes, aches in the arms, legs and back, and headaches and vomiting. Myeloid leukemia may cause swollen gums, aches in bones, knees, hips or shoulders, and may cause cuts to heal slowly.

Early Symptoms of Chronic Leukemia

Many patients with chronic leukemia do not have any symptoms when they are diagnosed, and are often identified from blood tests taken during a routine exam or unrelated problem. Chronic lymphocytic leukemia may cause enlarged lymph nodes, which feel like lumps under the skin. Chronic myeloid leukemia may cause pain in the bones or joints as the leukemia cells spread from the marrow to the surface of the bone.

Early general symptoms of both types of chronic leukemia can include fatigue, fever, night sweats, weight loss and weakness. A sense of fullness in the belly after a small meal is a more specific symptom of chronic leukemia and is caused by an enlarged spleen.

Leukemia Testing

During the first examination, the doctor should conduct a physical exam and check for swelling of the lymph nodes, liver and spleen due to the accumulation of leukemia cells. Any unexplained bruising or hemorrhaging should also be investigated. A blood test is routine if the doctor suspects leukemia. Leukemia causes a very high blood cell count but the hemoglobin and platelet count will be low. Blood tests can also determine if the leukemia is affecting the kidneys and liver. Immunophenotyping is a type of blood test that determines whether the high lymphocyte count is due to leukemia or infection, and can differentiate acute leukemia from chronic leukemia. If a bone marrow sample is needed to check for leukemia cells, a specialist will insert a needle into the bone marrow to remove a sample.

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