Types of Leukemia: Common, Rare & More (2023)

When a patient is diagnosed with leukemia, the care team will identify the specific type of leukemia to help guide treatment decisions.

How is leukemia classified?

Leukemia is classified by the type of white blood cells affected and by how quickly the disease progresses:

  • Lymphocytic leukemia (also known as lymphoid or lymphoblastic leukemia) develops in the white blood cells called lymphocytes in the bone marrow.
  • Myeloid leukemia (also known as myelogenous leukemia) may also start in white blood cells other than lymphocytes, as well as red blood cells and platelets.

Acute vs. chronic leukemia

In terms of how quickly it develops or gets worse, leukemiais classified as either acute (fast-growing) or chronic (slow-growing):

  • Acute leukemia is rapidly progressing and results in the accumulation of immature, functionless blood cells in the bone marrow. With this type of leukemia, cells reproduce and build up in the marrow, decreasing the marrow’s ability to produce enough healthy blood cells.
  • Chronic leukemia progresses more slowly and results in the accumulation of relatively mature, but still abnormal, white blood cells. It tends to take longer to start causing noticeable problems than acute leukemia. However, chronic, slower-growing leukemia may be more difficult to treat.

Infographic: What does leukemia look like?

During the leukemia diagnosis process, the care team may analyze a sample of the patient's blood to evaluate whether they can detect any abnormal cells.


Download leukemia infographic »

What are the different types of leukemia?

According to data from the National Cancer Institute Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) Program, the most common types of leukemia in the United States are, in this order:

  • Chronic lymphocytic leukemia
  • Acute myeloid leukemia
  • Chronic myeloid leukemia
  • Acute lymphocytic leukemia

The four types of leukemia explained

Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL)

Acute lymphocytic leukemia progresses rapidly, replacing healthy cells that produce functional lymphocytes with leukemia cells that can't mature properly. The leukemia cells are carried in the bloodstream to other organs and tissues, including the brain, liver, lymph nodes and testes, where they continue to grow and divide. The growing, dividing and spreading of these leukemia cells may result in a number of possible symptoms, some of which may resemble the flu. They include fatigue, shortness of breath, fever, and easy bruising or bleeding, among other symptoms.

ALL develops when changes in DNA (mutations) cause the bone marrow to produce too many abnormal lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell). Lymphocytes are supposed to help fight infections, but the ones produced in people with ALL are unable to do so properly. The proliferation of these abnormal cells also crowds out other types of healthy blood cells.

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It’s unknown what exactly causes the mutations that lead to ALL, but certain factors may increase one’s risk. Risk factors for ALL include:

  • Being male, white and older than 70 years old
  • Having a history of chemotherapy or radiation exposure .

ALL may be diagnosed with blood tests and a bone marrow aspiration and biopsy, which involve extracting a sample of bone marrow and a tiny piece of bone, then studying the cells under a microscope.

Some of the common treatment options for ALL include:

  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation therapy
  • Stem cell transplant
  • Targeted therapy

Learn more about ALL

Acute myeloid leukemia (AML)

Acute myeloid leukemia, also known as acute myelogenous leukemia, acute myeloblastic leukemia, acute granulocytic leukemia or acute nonlymphocytic leukemia, is a fast-growing form of cancer of the blood and bone marrow.

Like ALL, AML causes the bone marrow to overproduce abnormal white blood cells, crowding healthy blood cells and affecting the body’s ability to fight infections.

Risk factors for AML include:

  • Being male
  • Smoking
  • Having past chemotherapy treatment or radiation exposure

Some symptoms of AML may resemble the flu—such as fever, fatigue and night sweats. Others include easy bruising or bleeding and weight loss. Blood tests and bone marrow aspiration and biopsy are among the tests that may be done to diagnose this cancer.

Treatment may include:

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  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation therapy
  • Stem cell transplant
  • Targeted therapy

Learn more about AML

Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)

Chronic lymphocytic leukemia is a typically slow-growing cancer that begins in lymphocytes in the bone marrow and extends into the blood. It may also spread to lymph nodes and organs such as the liver and spleen. CLL develops when too many abnormal lymphocytes grow, crowding out normal blood cells and making it difficult for the body to fight infection.

About 25 percent of all cases of leukemia are CLL, and approximately one in every 175 people may develop CLL in their lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). CLL is like ALL, but it’s chronic instead of acute, meaning that it’s more slow-growing and takes longer to start causing symptoms.

When CLL does cause symptoms, these may include swelling in the lymph nodes (neck, underarm, stomach or groin), fatigue, fever, infection, weight loss and more. Various blood tests may be used to help diagnose CLL.

CLL may not need to be treated immediately, but rather monitored for any problems and changes, at which point the need for treatment may be reassessed. Common treatment options include:

  • Targeted therapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation therapy
  • Immunotherapy

Learn more about CLL

Chronic myeloid leukemia (CML)

Chronic myeloid leukemia, also known as chronic myelogenous leukemia, begins in the blood-forming cells of the bone marrow and then, over time, spreads to the blood. Eventually, the disease spreads to other areas of the body.

CML is slow-growing, but once it starts causing symptoms, these may include fatigue, fever, weight loss and an enlarged spleen. Around half of CML cases are diagnosed by a blood test before symptoms have begun. About 15 percent of leukemias are CML, according to the ACS.

Treatment options include:

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  • Targeted therapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Immunotherapy
  • Stem cell transplant

Learn more about CML

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Your multidisciplinary team will work with you to develop a personalized plan to treat your leukemiain a way that fits your individual needs and goals.

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Rare types of leukemia

Among the many different types of leukemia, some are less common than others. Three rarer leukemia types—prolymphocytic leukemia (PLL), large granular lymphocyte leukemia (LGL) and hairy cell leukemia (HCL)—share some of the same characteristics as lymphocytic leukemias and are sometimes considered subtypes of chronic or acute lymphocytic leukemia (CLL and ALL). Myelodysplastic syndromes are conditions related to leukemia that are also rare.

Prolymphocytic leukemia (PLL) may develop along with CLL or on its own, but it usually progresses faster than typical CLL. It’s marked by a proliferation of immature lymphocytes. If PLL causes symptoms, they may be similar to other types of leukemia (flu-like symptoms, easy bruising, unexplained weight loss). A PLL diagnosis may include blood tests as well as bone marrow aspiration and biopsy. PLL tends to respond well to treatment, and options may resemble those used to treat CLL. However, relapse is common.

Large granular lymphocytic (LGL) leukemia is a chronic type of leukemia that causes the body to produce abnormally large lymphocytes. By the time patients are diagnosed with this condition, symptoms tend to be present and include flu-like symptoms, frequent infections and unexplained weight loss. People with autoimmune diseasestend to be more at risk for developing LGL. A diagnosis of LGL leukemia may include blood tests and bone marrow aspiration and biopsy. Most patients require treatment shortly after diagnosis, which may include drugs that suppress the immune system. Others may be able to hold off on treatment to see whether problems arise. Treatment for LGL isn’t standardized, and patients may require different options, depending on their condition.

Hairy cell leukemia (HCL) is a rare subtype of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) that progresses slowly. About 700 people are estimated to be diagnosed with HCL every year, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology. HCL is caused when bone marrow makes too many B cells (lymphocytes), a type of white blood cell that fights infection. As the number of leukemia cells increases, fewer healthy white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets are produced. The word “hairy” comes from the look of the cells produced. Under a microscope, HCL cells appear to have thin, hair-like outgrowths.

Hairy cell leukemia symptoms may be similar to other types of leukemia and resemble the flu. Bone marrow aspiration and biopsy and blood tests are the primary diagnostic tools.

HCL often doesn’t need to be treated immediately, and patients are monitored for problematic changes that require treatment. When complications related to HCL do occur—such as low blood cell counts, frequent infections or lymph node swelling—chemotherapy is typically used.

Learn more about HCL

Myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS) are a group of closely related diseases in which the bone marrow produces too few functioning red blood cells (which carry oxygen), white blood cells (which fight infection), or platelets (which prevent or stop bleeding), or any combination of the three. The different types of myelodysplastic syndromes are diagnosed based on certain changes in the blood cells and bone marrow. The cells in the blood and bone marrow (also called myelo) usually look abnormal (or dysplastic), hence the name myelodysplastic syndromes.

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Approximately 10,000 people a year are diagnosed with MDS, according to the ACS. In the past, MDS was commonly referred to as a preleukemic condition (and it is still sometimes called preleukemia) because some people with MDS develop acute leukemia as a complication of the disease. However, most patients with MDS never develop acute leukemia.

By convention, MDS are reclassified as acute myeloid leukemia (AML) with myelodysplastic features when blood or bone marrow blasts reach or exceed 20 percent.

FAQs

What are the rarest types of leukemia? ›

Three rarer leukemia types—prolymphocytic leukemia (PLL), large granular lymphocyte leukemia (LGL) and hairy cell leukemia (HCL)—share some of the same characteristics as lymphocytic leukemias and are sometimes considered subtypes of chronic or acute lymphocytic leukemia (CLL and ALL).

Is leukemia rare or common? ›

Leukemia is the 10th most common cancer in the U.S., accounting for 3.2% of all new cancer cases. Leukemia can affect anyone, but it's more common among people who are: Ages 65 to 74.

Which leukemia is not curable? ›

Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) can rarely be cured. Still, most people live with the disease for many years. Some people with CLL can live for years without treatment, but over time, most will need to be treated.

Which leukemia is incurable? ›

Leukemia is a type of cancer that affects your blood cells and bone marrow. As with other types of cancer, there's currently no cure for leukemia.

Which form of leukemia is more serious? ›

Acute myeloid leukemia (AML)

The most common form of acute (fast-developing) leukemia among adults , AML is also the most critical because it progresses rapidly.

What is the most common leukemia in older adults? ›

Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) in Adults

Acute myeloid leukemia is also called acute myelocytic leukemia, acute myelogenous leukemia, acute granulocytic leukemia, acute non-lymphocytic leukemia, or sometimes just AML. It is most common in older people.

What is the most common form of leukemia in adults? ›

Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. It is the most common type of acute leukemia in adults. This type of cancer usually gets worse quickly if it is not treated.

Which leukemia has the best prognosis? ›

The survival rates are highest for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). The rates vary depending on person's age, the type of leukemia they have, and if (and how far) the leukemia has spread at the time of diagnosis. A child who has lived at least five years after a diagnosis of acute leukemia is probably cured.

How rare is acute myeloid leukemia? ›

AML is one of the most common types of leukemia in adults. Still, AML is fairly rare overall, accounting for only about 1% of all cancers. AML is generally a disease of older people and is uncommon before the age of 45. The average age of people when they are first diagnosed with AML is about 68.

Is it rare to survive leukemia? ›

The 5-year survival rate for people age 20 and older is 40%. The 5-year survival rate for people under age 20 is 89%. Recent advances in treatment have significantly lengthened the lives of people with ALL. However, survival rates depend on several factors, including biologic features of the disease and a person's age.

Are there less serious forms of leukemia? ›

The slow-growing form of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) is the least serious type of leukemia. It is a disease of older people; the average age at diagnosis is around 71. CLL is a malignancy of mature lymphocytes, which usually grow and divide slowly, resulting in a slowly progressive disease.

What type of leukemia is slow growing? ›

Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) is a type of cancer of the blood and bone marrow — the spongy tissue inside bones where blood cells are made. The term "chronic" in chronic lymphocytic leukemia comes from the fact that this leukemia typically progresses more slowly than other types of leukemia.

Which leukemia is worse acute or chronic? ›

Chronic leukemia inhibits the development of blood stem cells, ultimately causing them to function less effectively than healthy mature blood cells. As compared to acute leukemia, chronic leukemia tends to be less severe and progresses more slowly.

Can you live 20 years with leukemia? ›

CLL has a very high incidence rate in people older than 60 years. CLL affects men more than women. If the disease has affected the B cells, the person's life expectancy can range from 10 to 20 years.

How do you know what type of leukemia you have? ›

Biopsy. A biopsy is used to determine the type of leukemia, the growth rate of the tumor, and whether the disease has spread. Common biopsy procedures for leukemia include: Bone marrow biopsy removes a sample of bone marrow.

Is leukemia always terminal? ›

There are different types of leukemia which can be grouped into acute leukemias and chronic leukemias, and it's a complete myth that leukemia is incurable. Thanks to advancements in treatment such as better chemotherapy and transplant regimens, many patients can be cured of their disease.

What is aggressive leukemia called? ›

Acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) is an aggressive condition that develops rapidly, so treatment will usually begin a few days after a diagnosis has been confirmed.

What is the most common cause of death in leukemia? ›

Infection is the major cause of mortality in acute lymphoblastic leukemia patients in our study. To improve outcome, we should improve supportive care, especially prevention and control infection.

What is the rarest form of acute leukemia? ›

Chronic myeloid leukemia (CML)

CML is less common than other types. About 15 percent of leukemias are CML, and it affects more adults than children.

Where is leukemia most commonly found? ›

Leukemia starts in the soft, inner part of the bones (bone marrow), but often moves quickly into the blood. It can then spread to other parts of the body, such as the lymph nodes, spleen, liver, central nervous system and other organs.

What triggers leukemia in adults? ›

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.

How does an older person get leukemia? ›

Deficiencies of folic acid and vitamins B 12 and B 6 are also risk factors. Chronic exposure to some chemicals, such as benzene, increases the risk of AML and acute lymphocytic leukemia, especially in older adults.

What is the most common leukemia in adults over 60? ›

Chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) is a type of cancer that affects the white blood cells and tends to progress slowly over many years. It can occur at any age, but is most common in older adults around 60-65 years of age.

What cancers don't show up in blood work? ›

Aside from leukemia, most cancers cannot be detected in routine blood work, such as a CBC test. However, specific blood tests are designed to identify tumor markers, which are chemicals and proteins that may be found in the blood in higher quantities than normal when cancer is present.

Which is worse CLL or CML? ›

But there can be a few differences. Patients with CML are more likely to seek medical help because they've been experiencing stomach pain and difficulties with digestion. On the other hand, patients with CLL are more likely to seek medical help for repeated infections and enlarged lymph nodes.

Is there a non fatal leukemia? ›

The slow-growing form of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) is the least serious type of leukemia. It is a disease of older people; the average age at diagnosis is around 71. CLL is a malignancy of mature lymphocytes, which usually grow and divide slowly, resulting in a slowly progressive disease.

What type of leukemia is most common in elderly? ›

Chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) is a type of cancer that affects the white blood cells and tends to progress slowly over many years. It can occur at any age, but is most common in older adults around 60-65 years of age.

What is the life expectancy of CML? ›

Today, the ten year survival rate for the most common form of CML is approximately 85% and patients can expect to live life-spans nearly as long as normal healthy adults.

How many years can you live with CLL? ›

Some patients die rapidly, within 2-3 years of diagnosis, because of complications from CLL. Most patients live 5-10 years, with an initial course that is relatively benign but followed by a terminal, progressive, and resistant phase lasting 1-2 years.

How fatal is CML? ›

In the past, CML was considered a deadly disease. Today, modern treatment options have significantly improved the outlook of people with CML. Before the advent of targeted drug therapy, the five-year survival rate for people with CML was only 22%. Today, the overall five-year survival rate is 90%.

What is the slowest growing leukemia? ›

Chronic lymphocytic leukaemia is a type of cancer that affects the white blood cells and tends to progress slowly over many years. It mostly affects people over the age of 60 and is rare in people under 40. Children are almost never affected.

Is it possible to have mild leukemia? ›

The onset of leukemia can be acute (sudden onset) or chronic (slow onset). In acute leukemia, cancer cells multiply quickly. In chronic leukemia, the disease progresses slowly and early symptoms may be very mild.

What are the odds of beating leukemia? ›

The 5-year survival rate for people age 20 and older is 40%. The 5-year survival rate for people under age 20 is 89%. Recent advances in treatment have significantly lengthened the lives of people with ALL. However, survival rates depend on several factors, including biologic features of the disease and a person's age.

Where is the best hospital to treat leukemia? ›

The Leukemia Center at MD Anderson is one of the world's most-recognized treatment centers for leukemia and blood disorders. Research by MD Anderson doctors has pioneered new standards of care for all types of leukemia.

What type of leukemia progresses slowly? ›

Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) is a type of cancer of the blood and bone marrow — the spongy tissue inside bones where blood cells are made. The term "chronic" in chronic lymphocytic leukemia comes from the fact that this leukemia typically progresses more slowly than other types of leukemia.

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4. Living with A Rare Blood Cancer, Polycythemia Vera
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5. Pediatric Acute Myeloid Leukemia: A Clinical Challenge
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