Leukemia cutis can happen when leukemia cells enter your skin. This rare condition causes patches of discolored skin to appear on the body.

In some cases, the appearance of leukemia cutis lesions on the skin is the first sign of leukemia — a cancer of the blood and bone marrow.

Along with standard leukemia therapies, this complication can usually be addressed with topical treatments to help heal the damaged skin. If you have leukemia cutis, your outlook will usually depend on your age and the type of leukemia you have.

Leukemia cutis is an uncommon complication, affecting only about 3 percent of people with leukemia. However, it is often a sign that the cancer is at an advanced stage.

With leukemia, malignant leukocytes (white blood cells) are usually only present in the bloodstream. In the case of leukemia cutis, the leukocytes have entered the skin tissue, causing lesions to appear on the outer layer of your skin. The word “cutis” refers to the skin, or dermis.

Generally, leukemia cutis results in one or more lesions or patches forming on the outer layer of skin. This condition can mean that the leukemia is more advanced and may have spread to your bone marrow and other organs.

Leukemia cutis vs. other skin changes with leukemia

Because there are fewer healthy white cells to combat infections caused by other diseases, rashes and sores may be more common among people with leukemia. Low blood platelets from leukemia can cause damage to blood vessels that appear as red spots or lesions on the skin.

These may include:

  • petechiae
  • acute myelogenous leukemia rash
  • bruising
  • chloroma or granulocytic sarcoma

However, these skin changes are different than those brought on by leukemia cutis.

While the legs are the most common area for leukemia cutis lesions to appear, they can also form on the arms, face, trunk, and scalp. These skin changes can include:

  • papules, or raised, tender bumps on the skin’s surface
  • nodules, or lumps that form under the skin
  • flat patches that may be flesh colored or appear more red or purple, like a bad bruise

The lesions usually don’t hurt. However, with certain types of leukemia — particularly acute myeloid leukemia (AML) — the lesions may bleed.

A dermatologist may initially diagnose leukemia cutis based on a physical examination of the skin and a review of your medical history. A skin biopsy is needed to confirm the diagnosis.

Leukemia cutis is a sign of leukemia. It won’t develop if the body isn’t already dealing with this type of blood cancer.

But leukemia isn’t just one disease. There are multiple types of leukemia, each one classified by the kind of cell affected by the disease.

You can also have an acute or a chronic form of leukemia. Acute means it comes on suddenly and usually with more severe symptoms. Chronic leukemia develops more slowly and often with milder symptoms.

The types of leukemia that most commonly trigger leukemia cutis are AML and chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL).

Scientists aren’t sure why cancerous leukocytes migrate to skin tissue in some people with leukemia. It may be that the skin is an optimal environment for healthy leukocytes to transform into cancerous cells.

One possible risk factor that has emerged is an abnormality in chromosome 8, which has been found more often in individuals with leukemia cutis than in those without it.

Treating leukemia cutis usually includes treatment for leukemia as the underlying condition.

Leukemia treatments

The standard leukemia treatment is chemotherapy, but other options may be considered depending on your overall health, your age, and the type of leukemia you have.

Other leukemia treatment options include:

Radiation therapy

For blood cancers, external beam radiation is a typical form of treatment. With this therapy, a focused beam of radiation is delivered outside the body from various angles. The goal is to injure the DNA in cancer cells to stop them from reproducing.


Immunotherapy, a type of biological therapy, uses the body’s own immune system to fight cancer. It is typically given by an injection that either stimulates immune system cells’ activity or blocks the signals cancer cells send to suppress the immune response.

Immunotherapy may also be given orally, topically, or intravesically (into the bladder).

Stem cell transplantation

Stem cell transplantation is more commonly known as a bone marrow transplant. Bone marrow is where blood stem cells develop. Stem cells can become any type of cell.

Through stem cell transplantation, healthy blood stem cells replace stem cells damaged by the cancer or by chemotherapy or radiation therapy. However, not everyone is a good candidate for this treatment.

Leukemia cutis treatments

Only treating the leukemia cutis lesions will not address the underlying disease of leukemia. That means treatments designed to remove or reduce lesions should be done in combination with systemic treatment for leukemia itself.

Treatments for leukemia cutis symptoms can include:

  • Localized therapy using radiation: electron beam, surgery, or light therapy to remove or reduce skin lesions
  • Topical treatments: steroid creams, lidocaine, or other medications to relieve the pain and other symptoms
  • Antimicrobial medications: medications to help prevent infections that may enter the body through skin lesions

Again, these treatments will only treat the leukemia cutis lesions, but systemic treatment of the leukemia itself will be needed as well.

The length of time leukemia cutis lesions may last depends on many factors, including how well the leukemia itself is responding to treatment. If the leukemia goes into remission, it’s unlikely more lesions will appear.

With effective treatment, existing lesions could fade. However, other factors, including your age and overall health, can affect how widespread the lesions are and how long they may last.

There are encouraging trends in the treatment of leukemia, but it remains a challenging disease to treat and live with.


For people with AML who don’t have leukemia cutis, research suggests that the survival rate at 2 years is about 30 percent. However, the survival rate drops to 6 percent among people with the skin lesions.

A separate study of 1,683 people with AML found that leukemia cutis was associated with a poor prognosis, and that those with AML and leukemia cutis may benefit from more aggressive treatment.


The outlook for people with CLL is better, with about an 83 percent survival rate at 5 years. The presence of leukemia cutis doesn’t seem to change that outlook very much, according to a 2019 study.

Leukemia cutis is a rare complication of leukemia. It happens when malignant leukocytes invade the skin and cause lesions on the skin’s outer surface.

AML and CLL are more often associated with leukemia cutis than other types of leukemia.

While leukemia cutis usually means the leukemia is in an advanced stage, there are treatments for both the cancer and this uncommon side effect that may help extend life and improve its quality.