Leukemia is a cancer of blood-forming cells. Typically it occurs in the white blood cells — though some leukemias start in other blood cells. Different types of leukemia are based on whether the leukemia is fast or slow-growing, and if it starts in the myeloid cells or lymphoid cells.
Many people ask us, “what are the early signs of leukemia?” We’ve put together a guide on symptoms for both children and adults, so you can stay up-to-date with your body and know when to contact your health care provider when something doesn’t seem quite right.
Types of Leukemia
Before we answer what are early signs of leukemia, we need to discuss the types of leukemia. Doctors classify leukemia based on the abnormal cells and the progression of the illness.
- Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML)
Acute myeloid leukemia is also known as acute myelogenous leukemia and is most common in adults who are 65 and older.
- Chronic Myeloid Leukemia (CML)
Chronic myeloid leukemia is also known as chronic myelogenous leukemia and is the most chronic leukemia in adults. CML is a fairly slow growing leukemia but can change into a fast-growing acute leukemia that’s difficult to treat.
- Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL)
Acute lymphocytic leukemia is also known as acute lymphoblastic leukemia and is the most common childhood cancer.
- Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL)
Chronic lymphocytic leukemia most commonly occurs in adults. CLL is a slow growing leukemia and many people do not experience any symptoms for at least a few years.
What Are the Early Signs of Childhood Leukemia?
Childhood leukemia is often found as a result of symptoms. These signs become a cause for concern and eventually lead to a doctor’s visit. That’s why it’s a good idea to stay informed and know what to look for.
If you’re wondering what are the early signs of childhood leukemia, first know that many of these symptoms can have other causes as well. Because leukemia begins in the bone marrow, symptoms of leukemia are typically caused by problems in the bone marrow. When leukemia builds up in the bone marrow, it can crowd out normal cells, and result in a lack of normal red blood cells, white blood cells, and blood platelets. The spread of leukemia cells may prevent bone marrow from creating healthy cells. Symptoms might also be caused by leukemia cells invading other areas of the body.
1. Infections and Fever
Childhood cancer patients often have high white blood cell counts (which are what help the body to ward off germs). However, most of these are leukemia cells, which means they don’t actually protect against infection. When there aren’t enough normal white blood cells, children might experience infections and fevers. Infections might come frequently, one after the other, or not seem to go away. Fevers are a sign of infection — but some children may experience a fever without any infection.
When discussing what are the early signs of childhood leukemia, bleeding is an important factor to understand. Several symptoms come from low blood platelet counts that occur with pediatric leukemia. Typically, platelets in the blood help to stop bleeding. But when there’s a shortage of platelets, this can lead to easy bruising and bleeding, frequent or severe nosebleeds, and bleeding gums. Remember, these symptoms can come from other issues as well — but one way of answering how leukemia is diagnosed in children, has to do with low blood platelet counts (and the subsequent symptoms above).
3. Bone and Joint Pain
When asking a child who has been diagnosed, what does leukemia pain feel like, there’s often mention of bone and joint pain. This pain is caused by a buildup of cancer cells near the surface of a child’s bones or inside their joints. Children experience growing pains throughout adolescence, but recurring pain in a child may be caused by something more serious.
When parents ask what are the early signs of leukemia in children, we discuss swelling in various parts of the body. Some leukemias can spread to the lymph nodes and may be seen or felt in areas like the sides of the neck, the underarms, above the collar bone, or the groin. There are also lymph nodes inside the chest and abdomen that can swell, though these can only be seen in tests like MRI scans. There can also be swelling of the face, neck, arms, and upper chest. This is due to an enlarged thymus that presses on the vein that carries blood from the arms and heads back to the heart. Known as SVC syndrome, if a child has this, their skin might also appear blue-red in color. This is a serious syndrome and can include additional symptoms like dizziness or headaches. There may also be swelling in the child’s belly, due to leukemia cells collecting in the liver and spleen.
5. Loss of Appetite
Many parents want to know how you can test for leukemia at home, and a good place to start is the kitchen table. If your child is experiencing a loss of appetite, this might be due to the liver or an enlarged spleen pressing against organs (like the stomach). When this happens, your child might eat a small amount of food, yet feel full. Over time, this can lead to a loss of appetite and weight loss.
6. Trouble Breathing (and Coughing)
Certain types of pediatric leukemia can affect structures in the chest — like the thymus or lymph nodes. When these are enlarged, they may press on the trachea which can lead to trouble breathing and coughing. Sometimes, when the white blood cell count is high, leukemia cells can build up in the blood vessels of the lungs, which can also lead to difficulty breathing.
7. Additional Symptoms
In cases where children have leukemia that has spread to the brain and spinal cord, there can be additional symptoms. These include weakness, seizures, vomiting, blurred vision, and headaches. The patient may also have trouble concentrating or issues with their balance. In children with acute myeloid leukemia (AML), they may also experience what appear to be rashes. These small, dark spots are actually collections of cancerous cells that have spread to the skin. This is referred to as chloroma or granulocytic sarcoma.
What Are the Early Signs of Leukemia in Adults?
Now that we’ve answered what are the early signs of childhood cancer, let’s talk about what are the early signs of leukemia in adults.
Many of the symptoms that children experience are also experienced by adults, and symptoms vary based on the type of leukemia, how fast it grows, and at what stage the leukemia is diagnosed. Leukemia symptoms in adults may resemble the flu. Keep in mind that with the flu, the symptoms will typically subside as you get better; while leukemia symptoms will typically last longer than two weeks. In general, here’s what to look for.
1. Fevers, Chills, and Night Sweats
Fevers are common leukemia symptoms in adults. Though this can easily be mistaken for a flu symptom, it’s important to monitor how frequently the temperatures occur and what your temperature is. Often, fevers will be accompanied by chills and night sweats.
Petechiae is the term used for tiny red spots that show up on the skin. These pinpoint, round spots happen due to bleeding under the skin and are a symptom of chronic leukemia. Many patients ask exactly what do leukemia spots look like; they may resemble a rash and tend to be red, brown, or purple.
3. Easy Bruising and Bleeding
Bruising and bleeding is a normal occurrence and can happen for many reasons. However, if you find that you’re bruising more easily and bleeding more frequently, this may be a symptom of chronic leukemia.
4. Frequent Infections
Similar to the common leukemia symptom in children, adults may experience infections as well. These infections might be more frequent than usual and might last for longer than they otherwise would.
5. Sudden Weight Loss
Weight loss is another symptom to be aware of when covering what are early signs of leukemia. Sudden, unexpected weight loss is experienced by an estimated 40% of people when they are first diagnosed with cancer. With blood cancer, this can happen when the cancerous cells are using up the body’s energy supplies. These cancer cells can grow quickly and disrupt the way the body is used to functioning. Lack of appetite can also be a cause for weight loss. 3
6. Weakness and Fatigue
Weakness and fatigue are also symptoms that cancer patients experience early on. It may feel difficult to perform your usual activities, like taking out the trash or going for a walk around the neighborhood. If you’re curious about what are the symptoms of end stage leukemia, worsening weakness and fatigue are at the top of the list. Patients will spend more time in bed, sleeping and resting, with a decreased ability to walk.
Like children, adults will experience noticeable swelling in the neck, armpits, and groin when leukemia has spread to the lymph nodes. Due to the build-up of abnormal blood cells in the liver or spleen, the patient may also notice swelling in the upper left side of the abdomen.
8. Additional Symptoms
Adults may also experience shortness of breath, abdominal discomfort, and headaches.
Symptoms vary slightly between adults and children, but overall, leukemia symptoms include a combination of weight loss, infections, bruising and bleeding, weakness, and swelling and fatigue. With the right information, we hope you’ll feel empowered to take the next steps toward a doctor’s visit.
Finding Your Leukemia Doctor
At Immunity Therapy Center, we take an alternative approach to traditional cancer treatment methods, such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or other invasive methods such as a stem cell transplant or a bone marrow transplant. Our alternative treatment options are unique to each patient depending on their diagnosis and needs.
We know that cancer symptoms and a diagnosis can be overwhelming. That’s why we take time every day to speak with our patients, answer your questions, and provide you with the best experience possible. From all of us at ITC, thanks for reading. We’re wishing you a happy and healthy day ahead.
- “Signs and Symptoms of Childhood Leukemia.” cancer.org, February 12, 2019, https://www.cancer.org/cancer/leukemia-in-children/detection-diagnosis-staging/signs-and-symptoms.html. Accessed May 29, 2020.
- “Leukemia.” cancer.org, (no publish date), https://www.cancer.org/cancer/leukemia.html. Accessed May 29, 2020.
- “Blood Cancer Symptoms: Unexplained Weight Loss.” blood-cancer.com, February 16, 2018, https://blood-cancer.com/symptoms/weight-loss. Accessed May 29, 2020.
- “What Is Chronic Myeloid Leukemia?” cancer.org, June 19, 2018, https://www.cancer.org/cancer/chronic-myeloid-leukemia/about/what-is-cml.html
- “What is Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia?” cancer.org, May 10, 2018, https://www.cancer.org/cancer/chronic-lymphocytic-leukemia/about/what-is-cll.html
At Immunity Therapy Center, our goal is to provide objective, updated, and research-based information on all health-related topics. This article is based on scientific research and/or other scientific articles. All information has been fact-checked and reviewed by Dr. Carlos Bautista, a Board Certified Medical Doctor at Immunity Therapy Center. All information published on the site must undergo an extensive review process to ensure accuracy. This article contains trusted sources with all references hyperlinked for the reader's visibility.