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Leukemia refers to a type of cancer that impacts your blood cells and bone marrow. It’s the seventh most common cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States.

The outlook for leukemia can seem complicated to predict due to the different types of leukemia. Some leukemias are slow-growing (chronic), while others spread rapidly (acute). Also, each has varying symptoms and treatment options.

Read on to learn more about each of the major subtypes of leukemia so that you can better understand what treatment options are best for you.

Four main types of leukemia

There are four main types of leukemia, and each affects the blood cells in different ways. Chronic forms of leukemia tend to affect middle-aged to older adults, while acute versions mostly affect children and young adults.

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CML starts in your bone marrow, creating an abnormally high number of unhealthy white blood cells known as granulocytes.

Also called chronic granulocytic (or myeloid) leukemia, CML is thought to be partially attributed to gene mutations called Philadelphia chromosomes.

This type of leukemia is most common in middle-aged adults and is rare in children. It’s estimated that 15 percent of leukemia cases in adults are CML.

As CML progresses, granulocytes take over your bone marrow and blood so that there’s no room for red blood cells, platelets, or healthy white blood cells.

Some of the initial symptoms include:

In some people, CML causes no symptoms at all.


One promising area of treatment for CML involves targeted therapies that treat abnormal mutations from the Philadelphia chromosome. Researchers have found that targeted therapies can help people with CML survive closer to a “normal” life expectancy.

CLL also occurs in the bone marrow, leading to the production of too many lymphocytes, another type of white blood cell.

Like CML, CLL tends to occur in middle-aged adults and is one of the most common types of adult-onset leukemia. CLL is also rare in children.

Unlike CML, CLL develops slowly. Some of the symptoms include:

You may not experience symptoms until CLL reaches a later phase.

Hairy cell leukemia (HCL)

HCL is a rare form of CLL that causes the same symptoms as CLL. It’s called “hairy” cell because of the way the cancerous cells look under a microscope.

HCL is thought to occur mostly in older men, though the exact cause isn’t known. Unlike other types of leukemia, HCL isn’t defined by stages. It’s also more difficult to treat, and may recur despite standard treatments.


Targeted therapies are also used in early CLL cases. Research has shown that combination therapies may be more effective compared to using one targeted therapy at one time.

Another potential future treatment may include the use of chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy. This type of immunotherapy alters healthy cells in a way they may more effectively attack cancerous ones.

Researchers are also investigating the possibility of additional targeted therapies to help treat HCL.

AML occurs when there are abnormal white blood cells in your body called myeloblasts. This type of cancer is also called acute myelogenous, granulocytic, nonlymphocytic, or myeloblastic leukemia.

The most common form of acute (fast-developing) leukemia among adults, AML is also the most critical because it progresses rapidly. Some adults previously treated for acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) as children may develop AML later in life.


AML is most commonly treated with chemotherapy (with or without stem cells) and radiation therapy. Various targeted therapies are relatively new in the treatment of AML, and different combinations are being researched further.

Also known as acute lymphoblastic leukemia, ALL is responsible for creating too many lymphocytes. Unlike the chronic version of this cancer (CLL), ALL rapidly progresses if it’s left untreated. However, ALL may be easier to treat than AML.

Also, while CLL is more common in adults, ALL is more prevalent in children. However, certain risk factors may increase the risk of ALL in adults, such as being an adult white male over the age of 70.


CAR T-cell therapy is currently used in children and young adults with ALL. As with CLL, research is ongoing into the possibility of using CAR T-cells for older adults with this type of cancer.

The exact type of treatment depends on the stage and type of leukemia you have, as well as your age.

Targeted therapies are used in earlier phases of this cancer, while surgeries and stem cell transplants are used when other treatment options haven’t worked. Stem cell transplants are also more typically used in children.

Unlike other types of leukemia, both CLL and HCL treatment may include watchful waiting in early stages due to the slower rates of progression.

Both ALL and AML progress rapidly. Early treatment is important to help prevent further spread.

A leukemia diagnosis can be challenging to process for both you and your loved ones no matter which type you may have.

First, learn as much as you can about your cancer diagnosis. Talk with a doctor and ask them questions about treatment options and factors that affect your prognosis, which can vary between individuals.

Also, enlist the help of friends and loved ones for emotional support and assistance with daily tasks as you start cancer treatment.

For additional help, ask a doctor for local or virtual leukemia support groups. Such groups consist of individuals sharing similar experiences who may seek or offer advice while also helping you feel less alone.

Overall, the exact outlook for all types of leukemia depends on:

  • your age
  • stage of progression of cancer cells
  • treatment response

AML and ALL progress the most rapidly of all subtypes.

It’s estimated that 1.5 percent of all Americans will develop leukemia in their lifetime. But the overall death rate continues to decline, thanks to developing treatments.

Because everyone responds to leukemia medications differently, it’s important to continue talking with a doctor about all of your options.

The exact treatment and prognosis for leukemia depends greatly on the type due to each one’s differing effects on your blood cells. You may also need slower or more aggressive treatment depending on whether the case is chronic or acute.

Having friends and loved ones help you with anything you need as well as a support group to share your experiences and learn from other can help you prepare and cope with the next steps in your journey.