Leukemia is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. It can be a daunting diagnosis to receive, especially if you don’t know much about it. Thankfully, modern medicine has prevailed and promising treatments and success rates continue to soar.
In this guide, we’ll help you discover exactly what causes leukemia and give you some signs to look for in both children and adults. Remember — knowledge is power — and at ITC, we’re here to help.
An Overview of What Causes Leukemia
To understand what causes leukemia, it’s good to first familiarize yourself with our bodies’ blood cell types. The human body is composed of three types of cells: red blood cells that carry oxygen, white blood cells that fight against infection, and platelets that enable blood to clot. Your body is in a constant state of churning blood cells into your bone marrow — by the billions! Most of these cells are the red variety. With leukemia, your body thinks it needs more white blood cells than it actually does. Because of this, the majority of your body’s white blood cells become ineffective. In addition, your body stops producing red blood cells and platelets that are necessary for your survival.
Unfortunately, scientists today still don’t know what exactly causes the body to experience this surge in abnormal white blood cells.
Before discussing the causes of leukemia, it’s important to cover the different types.
These are the four main types of leukemia:
- Acute myeloid leukemia (AML)
- Chronic myeloid leukemia (CML)
- Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL)
- Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)
What Causes Childhood Leukemia?
Scientists still do not know what causes leukemia in children, and most children with leukemia do not have any known risk factors.
They do know, however, about changes in the DNA inside normal bone marrow cells. When this happens, the abnormal cells grow out of control and turn into leukemia cells.
Oncogenes help our normal blood cells grow, divide, and stay alive while tumor suppressor genes help keep cell division under control or cause cells to die at the correct time. In general, cancers can be caused by both DNA mutations that keep our oncogenes turned on or that turn off our tumor suppressor genes. These gene changes can happen randomly in a person’s lifetime or they can be inherited through a parent — sometimes, the ladder is the case for childhood leukemia.
This is a common type of DNA change that leads to leukemia. In chromosome translocation, SNA breaks off from a chromosome and attaches itself to another chromosome. The place where the break-off occurs can affect our oncogenes or our tumor suppressor genes. Something that happens in most cases of childhood chronic myeloid leukemia (also known as CML) and in all cases of childhood acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) is a chromosome swap between chromosomes 9 and 22. This leads to something called the Philadelphia chromosome, which creates an oncogene that enables the leukemia cells to grow.
Inherited Gene Mutations
In some cases, what causes childhood leukemia is an inherited gene mutation. In this instance, a child inherits a gene from a parent that increases the likelihood of leukemia. Most childhood leukemias are not developed in this way, and instead, come from an acquired mutation.
Acquired Gene Mutations
Typically, the DNA mutations that happen with leukemia development occur after conception (sometimes, before birth). In very rare cases, these acquired mutations can develop as a result of exposure to chemicals or cancer-causing radiation, but most of the time, they happen for no known reason. 1
What Causes Leukemia in Adults?
Due to the fact that leukemia is the most common childhood cancer among their age group, it’s often associated more with kids. Leukemia is actually diagnosed 10 times more frequently among adults and is more common among men than women; it’s also more common among Caucasians than other races.
More than 60,000 people are diagnosed with leukemia every year and the risk of developing it increases as you age. When we’re discussing what causes leukemia in adults, it’s important to note that even though we can understand how leukemia develops — we don’t know exactly what a person’s cause of leukemia may be.
These are the risk factors that are associated with developing leukemia:
Men are more likely than women to develop chronic or acute leukemia.
The chances of developing leukemia (acute myeloid leukemia or AML) increase due to certain blood disorders. These include chronic myeloproliferative disorders such as polycythemia vera, idiopathic myelofibrosis, and essential thrombocytopenia.
When talking about what causes leukemia, keep in mind that most leukemias have no link to family history. If you are a first-degree relative of someone who has chronic lymphocytic leukemia you may have an increased risk of developing it as well. This is also true if you have an identical twin who has acute myeloid leukemia or acute lymphocytic leukemia.
Down syndrome, Fanconi anemia, Bloom syndrome, ataxia-telangiectasia, and Blackfan-Diamond syndrome are said to raise the risk of developing acute myeloid leukemia.
Smoking: Smoking and tobacco use, although they are not directly what causes leukemia in adults, is said to raise the risk of developing acute myeloid leukemia.
Various types of chemotherapy and radiation therapy are also considered risk factors.
Prolonged exposure to industrial chemicals or certain pesticides are also considered a risk for chronic or acute leukemia. Benzene, in particular, which is a colorless, flammable chemical is a risk.
Intense exposure to low-energy radiation from electromagnetic fields like power lines and exposure to high-energy radiation, such as atomic bomb explosions, are thought to be risk factors as well.
Leukemia Signs to Look For
Many patients want to know what are early signs of leukemia and what are the symptoms of end stage leukemia. Below you’ll find a list of warning signs to look for, though keep in mind that some patients don’t show symptoms at all early on. The severity of the symptoms can also range depending on which type of leukemia you have.
Patients also wonder how leukemia is diagnosed and how you can test for leukemia at home. The best thing to do if you notice any of the symptoms below is to contact your healthcare professional. They can work with you to do a physical exam and blood work followed by additional tests if necessary.
Easy bruising and bleeding, including recurring nosebleeds
This is due to a shortage of platelets. Typically, platelets help us stop bleeding, but when platelet count is low, it can lead to a range of issues.
Anemia happens when your red blood cell count drops too low. This is common with leukemia patients because when the leukemia red blood cells multiply, there isn’t enough room for the normal ones to grow.
Persistent weakness and fatigue are common signs to be aware of in both children and adults. With acute or chronic leukemia, normal day-to-day tasks might consistently seem more exhausting than usual.
Frequent or severe infections
Infections can happen when there aren’t enough normal white blood cells to help the body fight off infection. In both children and adults, lack of normal white blood cells can lead to more frequent infections as well as infections that come and don’t go away.
Fever and chills
Fevers are typically a sign of infection, but with leukemia, patients can experience fevers without any infection at all. Chills are also common.
Dramatic weight loss
Weight loss can be caused by a lack of appetite, though it can also be because the cancerous cells are using up the body’s energy supply.
Swollen lymph nodes
When acute or chronic leukemia has spread to the lymph nodes, patients can experience swelling of the lymph nodes.
Enlarged liver or spleen
When the abnormal cells build up in the liver or spleen, there may be a noticeable swelling in the upper left side of the abdomen.
Pain or tenderness in the bones
When discussing what does leukemia pain feel like, tenderness of the bones is often mentioned. This is due to the buildup of cancerous cells near the surface of the bones or inside the joints.
Profuse sweating, especially at night
Night sweats and cancer are common, particularly with cancers of the blood (like leukemia). With leukemia, you are at a greater risk of developing infection because your body isn’t producing enough healthy blood to help your cells. When this happens, the body increases its temperature to help it fight, which leads to night sweats and fevers. 1
This is a condition in which tiny red splotches appear on your skin. Patients often wonder what do leukemia spots look like, so keep in mind that these spots resemble a rash.
Whether you’ve been wondering what causes leukemia in adults or what causes childhood leukemia, we hope this informative guide has helped. Remember that arming yourself with the right knowledge is the first step toward taking control of your health.
If you have any more questions about what causes leukemia, what the signs and symptoms are — or even what a good leukemia diet is — feel free to reach out to our team at ITC.
At Immunity Therapy Center, we offer alternative targeted therapy options to help with your leukemia treatment. These methods are intended to be less harsh than chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and other traditional treatment options.
We know the road to childhood cancer recovery can be tough. And that’s why we’re doing everything in our power to pave the way for our patient’s peaceful, empowering journey ahead. Call us today to receive your custom targeted therapy plan today!
- “What Causes Childhood Leukemia?” cancer.org, February 12, 2019, https://www.cancer.org/cancer/leukemia-in-children/causes-risks-prevention/what-causes.html. Accessed
- “Spotting the Difference: Night Sweats in Leukemia vs. Normal Night Sweats.” leukemiacare.org.uk, (no publish date), https://www.leukaemiacare.org.uk/support-and-information/latest-from-leukaemia-care/blog/spotting-the-difference-night-sweats-in-leukaemia-vs-normal-night-sweats/. Accessed May 29, 2020.
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.