What are leukemias?

Leukemias are cancers that occur in your body’s blood cells and bone marrow. Most leukemias involve white blood cells: the lymphocytes that fight infection. However, they can also affect the myeloid cells that develop into platelets, red and white blood cells.

The most common forms of leukemia are:

  • Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL)

  • Acute myelogenous leukemia (AML)

  • Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)

  • Chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML)

Leukemia forms in the bone marrow, where your body makes blood cells. When white blood cells develop into a cancer they continue to grow, but no longer function properly. They also crowd out normal blood cells, often leading to fatigue, bone pain, increased bruising and increased risk of infection.

Meet our team

Blood and bone marrow cancer experts

At the UW Health | Carbone Cancer Center, we have experts who can provide whatever treatment is needed to cure the leukemia, whether that be chemotherapy, a stem cell transplant or use of immunotherapy with CAR T-cells or other agents. We also have clinical trials available for patients with newly diagnosed or relapsed leukemia, which provide cutting-edge treatments for these diseases.

We know cancer can affect all parts of your life. So, we’ve put together a team of specialists to help you during each stage of your cancer journey.

Your team includes specialized doctors who focus on your physical well-being. But we also have experts who focus on other areas, such as your mental health, financial needs and family concerns. They make sure the care you receive will be just right for you and your disease.

Team members might include:

  • Advanced practice providers

  • Health psychologists

  • Hematologic nurses

  • Hematologic oncologists

  • Medical oncologists

  • Nutritionists

  • Occupational therapists

  • Oncology pharmacists

  • Pain management specialists

  • Pathologists

  • Physical therapists

  • Psychologists

  • Radiation oncologists

  • Social workers

  • Surgeons

We work together to create the best treatment plan for you.

Symptoms and diagnosis

Signs of leukemia

Early symptoms of leukemias are like the flu or other common illnesses.

Leukemia symptoms can include:

  • Bruising

  • Chills

  • Fatigue

  • Feeling weak

  • Fever

  • Frequent infections

  • Loss of appetite

  • Night sweats

  • Pale skin

  • Swollen lymph nodes

  • Unexplained weight loss

  • Unusual bleeding (nosebleeds, bleeding gums)

Detecting leukemias

Talk to your doctor if you are concerned about your symptoms. At UW Health, we use different diagnostic tests to check for signs of leukemia. These tests include blood tests, bone marrow tests, gene tests, imaging tests, lumbar puncture and studying lymph nodes under a microscope (biopsies).

Treatment and research

How we can help

Your leukemia treatment depends on whether your cancer is acute or chronic.

Our goal is to destroy the leukemia cancer cells in your bone marrow. This allows your body to produce normal, healthy platelets and red and white blood cells. We also provide treatments to slow the disease.

Your treatments might include:

This treatment uses powerful drugs to attack cancerous cells. The drugs travel throughout the body with the goal of killing any diseased cells.

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Our specialists use the most advanced high-energy rays and other forms of precise radiation to kill cancer cells.

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This procedure involves replacing unhealthy lymphocytes (white blood cells) with healthy stem cells. You first receive high doses of chemotherapy to kill the cancerous cells. Then doctors introduce the new healthy cells. The cells might come from your own body or from someone else’s. They can also come from umbilical cord blood.

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Special medicines attack weak spots on your cancer cells. These drugs can kill cancer cells on their own or in combination with chemotherapy.

In some cases, doctors use surgery to remove cancerous tissue from your body.

The UW Carbone Cancer Center is a national research center for improving cancer care. Our experts could recommend you take part in a clinical trial to access the most advanced and innovative treatments. These treatments might not always be available at other cancer centers.

Find a clinical trial


Care close to home

The UW Health | Carbone Cancer Center provides care throughout Wisconsin and northern Illinois. Not all cancers are treated at every location; however, we will make every effort to connect you with care at a location convenient to you.

Patient and support services

Educational resources

At UW Health, we provide you with the information and support you need during your cancer journey.

Blood cancer support group

You can learn more about leukemias here: