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Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia

Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia or ALL is a type of blood cancer affecting the white blood cells. This can cause fatigue and increases vulnerability to infection.

This cancer needs immediate treatment as it can develop aggressively.

Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia is rare in the UK with around 650 new diagnoses of it each year. Most new cases are in children aged under 15, especially in the two to five year old age group.

What is acute lymphoblastic leukaemia?

ALL is a type of leukaemia that starts from white blood cells in the bone marrow, the soft inner part of bones. It develops from cells called lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell central to the immune system, or from lymphoblasts, an immature type of lymphocyte.

Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia invades the blood and can spread throughout the body to other organs such as the liver, spleen and lymph nodes. However, it does not normally produce tumours as many other types of cancer do. It is an acute type of leukaemia, which means it can progress quickly. Without treatment, it can be fatal within a few months.

An acute lymphoblastic leukaemia prognosis depends on factors (prognostic factors) such as:

  • Your age. Younger patients tend to have a better outlook.
  • Your laboratory test results. For example, your outlook is better if you have a lower white blood cell count when you're diagnosed.
  • Your subtype of ALL (B-cell ALL or T-cell ALL)
  • Whether or not you have a chromosome abnormality called the Philadelphia chromosome. Having it suggests a poorer prognosis.
  • Your response to chemotherapy. Your outlook is better if you have no evidence of leukaemia four to five weeks after starting treatment. 

 

Risk factors for acute lymphoblastic leukaemia

For most people the cause of ALL is unknown. For this reason there is no known way to prevent it. However, there are a few known risk factors for this type of leukaemia. This means these factors may increase your chances of getting acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, but it is not yet known whether these risk factors are actual causes of the leukaemia:

  • Exposure to high levels of radiation to treat other types of cancer.
  • Exposure to certain chemicals such as benzene, a solvent used in oil refineries and other industries and present in cigarette smoke, certain cleaning products, detergents and paint strippers.
  • Infection with Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), a related leukaemia more commonly seen in Africa.
  • Having an inherited genetic syndrome such as Down's syndrome.
  • Being white.
  • Being male.

Symptoms of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia

ALL can cause a variety of signs and symptoms. Some of these can be vague and not specific just to leukaemia. They include:

  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite or weight
  • Night sweats

Many symptoms of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia are the result of a shortage of normal blood cells. That's because leukaemia cells crowd out these normal cells in the bone marrow.

WebMD Medical Reference

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