Leukemia Symptoms

Symptoms of leukemia are often nonspecific. That’s because blood cancer symptoms are similar to those caused by many other health conditions, including different types of cancer. Symptoms of leukemia can be mild or unnoticed: Some cases of blood cancer are only detected when inconsistencies are detected in routine blood tests.

Chronic leukemia may develop without symptoms for years. Up to 20 percent of people diagnosed with chronic leukemia have no symptoms when their condition is diagnosed, according to the Oncology Channel (2010).

Symptoms: Leukemia, Adults and Children

Symptoms of leukemia — in children and adults — vary depending on the type of blood cancer, the progression of the cancer and the type of blood cell affected by the leukemia. However, there are some symptoms of blood cancer common to different types of leukemia.

General signs of leukemia include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Anemia
  • Bleeding problems
  • Bone pain or joint pain
  • Dyspnea (difficulty breathing)
  • Easy or excessive bruising
  • Enlarged liver, lymph nodes and/or spleen
  • Excessive sweating
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Increased vulnerability to infection
  • Petechiae (tiny red spots on the skin)
  • Physical weakness
  • Shortness of breath when exercising
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Vague discomfort (malaise)
  • Weight loss.

Because the disease affects so many different parts of the body, symptoms of leukemia are often general. Leukemia cells’ effect on bone marrow, blood cell levels and the immune system lead to problems in multiple body systems. Early symptoms of leukemia in adults and children can easily be mistaken for the flu or other conditions.

Anemia and Blood Cancer Symptoms

Anemia, or low levels of healthy red blood cells, is one of the more common symptoms of leukemia in children. Abnormal blood cells “crowd out” and replace healthy red blood cells. Red blood cells carry oxygen through the bloodstream. Insufficient levels of red blood cells or platelets cause pale skin, weakness and fatigue. People with anemia also bleed and bruise easily.

Dyspnea and Blood Cancer

Dyspnea, or difficulty breathing, is sometimes seen in cases of T-cell acute lymphocytic leukemia. In this variety of leukemia, cancerous cells congregate around the thymus gland, located in the middle of the chest. Chest pain, wheezing, coughing and dyspnea result, sometimes requiring emergency medical care.

Pain and Symptoms of Leukemia

Leukemia in adults and children can cause pain in the bones, joints and abdomen. Bone and joint pain is caused by excessive bone marrow cell production. Abdominal pain can occur when an enlarged liver, kidney or spleen presses on its surroundings.

White Blood Cells, Leukemia and Infection

White blood cells fight infection. People with leukemia often have very high white blood cell counts. These white blood cells, however, are immature and abnormal cells. Rather than fight infection, leukemia cells reduce the number of healthy white blood cells, increasing the risk of infection in leukemia patients.


Mayo Clinic. (2008). Leukemia: Symptoms. Retrieved March 12, 2010, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/leukemia/DS00351/DSECTION=symptoms.

Oncology Channel. (2010). Leukemia signs and symptoms. Retrieved March 12, 2010, from http://www.oncologychannel.com/leukemias/symptoms.shtml.

University of San Francisco Children’s Hospital. (2010). Leukemia signs and symptoms. Retrieved March 12, 2010, from http://www.ucsfchildrenshospital.org/conditions/leukemia/signs_and_symptoms.html.