What is leukaemia?

Leukaemia is the medical name for cancer of the blood. The abnormality occurs in the bone marrow resulting in the overproduction of highly abnormal white blood cells. There are several types of leukaemia depending on which type of white cell is affected. The remaining healthy cells in the bone marrow have less space in which to develop, which means that less red blood cells and platelets are produced.

Leukaemia is broadly classified into two forms, acute and chronic. Chronic leukaemia is the slower of the two, involving more mature types of cell. Acute leukaemia attacks immature bone marrow cells, and has a much more sudden onset. It is the rarer form of leukaemia and tends to afflict children and younger people more often than older people.

The causes of leukaemia are unknown, but the disease does seem to occur in more males than females. In Ireland in 1995, 204 males compared to 104 females were diagnosed with leukaemia.

How does leukaemia occur?

The causes of leukaemia are not known, but research is ongoing. It is hoped that future genetic research may cast some light on the origins of this disease.

What are the symptoms of leukaemia?

Leukaemia usually requires blood tests to confirm diagnosis, but it does manifest symptoms, very suddenly in the case of acute leukaemia. The things to look out for include:

  • Fatigue
  • Repeated niggling infections, such as chest infections or sore throats
  • Pale skin, due to anaemia
  • Unexplained or easy bruising
  • Weight loss
  • Night sweats and fevers

Chronic leukaemia typically occurs in older people and usually presents with enlargement of the lymph glands in the neck, armpits and groin.

If you experience more than one of these symptoms, especially if they come on suddenly, you should consult your GP who can arrange for blood tests to check for leukaemia.

How can leukaemia be treated?

Treatment usually takes the form of chemotherapy, which is initiated intravenously. This requires admission to hospital. Each course of chemotherapy can last a number of days. Usually, patients will be referred to a specialist unit, such as the one at St. James’ Hospital, Dublin, for care.

In certain cases, the leukaemia may warrant a bone marrow transplant. This procedure is generally only performed on children and young adults. The marrow cells used must be removed from a donor and replaced in the patient, and must be as close a match as possible. Often, the donated cells will come from a close relative or an unrelated donor (an allogeneic transplant). A full sibling (brother or sister) is usually the best match.

Because not everyone has a relative whose bone marrow cells match their own, a bone marrow transplant registry is in place, based at the Blood Transfusion Board headquarters in Dublin. Volunteer donors attend a blood transfusion clinic for tests, and their marrow cell details are stored on a registry until needed or until the would-be donor is 55 years of age.

These marrow donations are known as MUD (matched unrelated donor) transplants.

If you would like more information on becoming a bone marrow donor, contact The National Bone Marrow Registry at:

Pelican House,

40 Mespil Road,

Dublin 4.

Tel: (01) 6603333

Fax: (01) 6603419.

You can also contact them via email at info@ibts.ie.

Where can people with leukaemia get information and support?

If you are diagnosed with leukaemia, you can be sure that you will receive plenty of information and support from the hospital in which you are treated.

The Irish Cancer Society offers information and support to all people with cancer, including leukaemia. They have a website at www.cancer.ie and run a telephone cancer helpline at 1800 200700.

Back to top of page.