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Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia, Adult

What is it?

  • Adult acute lymphocytic (lim-fuh-sih-tik) leukemia (lew-kee-mee-uh) is also called acute lymphoblastic (lim-fo-blah-stik) leukemia or ALL. Leukemia is cancer of blood cells. Blood is made up of different parts such as red blood cells (RBCs), platelets, plasma, and white blood cells (WBCs). RBCs carry oxygen and food to the cells of the body and take away wastes, like carbon dioxide. Platelets, plasma, and other proteins in the blood help your blood clot when you are cut or hurt. WBCs help fight infection in the body.
  • WBCs are made in the bone marrow. Bone marrow is the soft spongy center of bones. Lymphocytes (lim-fuh-sites) are small white blood cells. Normally, blood cells are made in an orderly way as the body needs them. ALL is a kind of cancer that happens when more lymphocytes are made than the body needs. Or, the lymphocytes that are made don't work right.
  • The diseased lymphocytes look different from normal lymphocytes and are called lymphoblasts. Lymphoblasts have not grown fully and do not work right. Lymphoblasts gather in the blood, bone marrow, lymph glands, spinal cord, brain and other organs. The lymphoblasts crowd out other blood cells by not leaving enough room for them to grow right. The other cells then cannot do their jobs correctly.

Causes: ALL is usually caused by a change in your genes (DNA). Radiation and some drugs can damage DNA but most of the time the exact cause is not known.

Signs and Symptoms: The early signs of ALL can be like having the flu. Symptoms are usually caused by having too many lymphocytes in the body. At the same time, there are lower numbers of the other blood cells and these cells are not fully grown yet.

  • Fatigue (feeling tired) and fever.
  • Bleeding in the skin, gums, and urine.
  • Trouble breathing when you exercise.
  • Trouble eating.
  • Losing weight without trying.
  • Lymph nodes may be large, especially in your neck, around your collarbone, and in your armpits.
  • Headaches and problems seeing.
  • Spleen or liver is larger than normal. This may cause you to have abdominal pain or discomfort.
  • Bones and joints may start to hurt.
  • Infections, such as the cold or flu, do not get better or keep coming back.

Care: Chemotherapy is the main treatment for ALL. Sometimes radiation therapy is used as well. Experimental treatments, such as bone marrow transplant, are sometimes recommended.

  • You may have blood tests to count the number of each of the different kinds of blood cells. You may also have a bone marrow biopsy. A needle is put into your hip bone. A small amount of bone marrow is taken out and looked at under a microscope (mi-kruh-skop). Caregivers can then tell what kind of leukemia you have. You may also have a spinal tap. A needle is put into your back to take out a sample of the fluid around your brain and spine. The fluid is looked at under a microscope to see if cancer cells are in the fluid.
  • Eat a healthy diet, exercise, get plenty of rest, and visit your caregiver regularly. When it is time for treatment, you and your caregiver will decide what is best for you. You may need to take anticancer or steroid medicines. You may also need radiation. You may have a bone marrow transplant. Often 2 or more kinds of treatment will be used together, such as chemo medicine and radiation. You may take chemo medicine for several years to keep the cancer in remission. Remission means there are no longer any signs of leukemia.


  • Accepting that you have ALL is hard. You and those close to you may feel scared, depressed, angry, or sad. These are normal feelings. Talk to your caregivers, family, or friends about your feelings. You may also want to join a cancer support group. This is a group of people who also have cancer. Such a group can give you support and information.
  • For more information call or write:
    • American Cancer Society
      1599 Clifton Rd.
      Atlanta, GA 30329
      Phone 1 (800) ACS-2345
    • The National Cancer Institute
      Cancer Information Center
      Phone: 1 (800) 4-CANCER.
    • Leukemia Society of America
      600 Third Avenue
      New York, NY 10016
      Phone: 1 (212) 573-8484
      Info. Resource Center Phone: 1 (800) 955-4LSA

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. To help with this plan, you must learn about ALL. You can then discuss treatment options with your caregivers. You can work with them to decide what care will be used to treat you. You always have the right to refuse treatment.

Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.