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Leukemia is a type of blood cancer that impairs the production of healthy blood cells. It usually starts in the bone marrow, where blood cells are produced. The disease can be either acute (it gets worse quickly) or chronic (slow-growing), and it can occur at any age.  This document will refer mostly to adult leukemia.

Wilmot Cancer Institute has a nationally respected leukemia program with physicians who are specialists in leukemia care and research. Specialization ensures that when you receive treatment at Wilmot for leukemia, your doctor’s primary focus is on this disease. Our team is experienced in delivering the latest treatments, including the area’s only stem cell transplant program. We also offer more clinical trials than any other cancer treatment center in the Finger Lakes region.

Types of leukemia

  • Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is the most common type of acute leukemia in adults. It generally affects older people; the average lifetime risk is less than one percent. Wilmot is investigating why some patients with AML do not respond to treatment, as well as improving treatments for patients with AML.
  • Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) is the most common type of leukemia in children but also occurs in adults. In ALL, the bone marrow makes too many of a certain type of white blood cell called a lymphocyte. Wilmot investigators are working to improve treatments for ALL through clinical trials.
  • Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) usually progresses more slowly and is a common type of leukemia occurring during or after middle age.
  • Chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) is also a slowly progressing type that usually occurs during or after middle age.
  • Chronic myelomonocytic leukemia (CMML) is a disease in which people have both shortages of certain blood cells and too many monocytes, a white blood cell. It is rare, occurring in only four of one million people each year.
  • Myeloproliferative neoplasms and myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS). These are early bone marrow cancers that can often be difficult to diagnose. Wilmot has a long history of excellence in MDS diagnosis and research, led by Professor Emeritus John M. Bennett, M.D., who founded the national Myelodysplastic Syndromes Foundation. The University of Rochester is an MDS Center of Excellence.

Myeloma is another type of blood cancer that can impair the production of healthy blood cells as injure the kidneys and bones. Like leukemia, myeloma typically starts in the bone marrow. Wilmot Cancer Institute has a nationally respected myeloma program with physicians who are specialists in myeloma care and research.

Blood cancer facts

Acute leukemia is an aggressive disease and without treatment most patients will live less than a year. Chronic leukemia tends to progress over a longer period of time but often result in an inability to fight infection. According to the National Cancer Institute, about 54,300 cases of all types of leukemia are diagnosed in the U.S. annually.

Causes and risk factors

Different types of leukemia have different risk factors. One common factor is older age. (For ALL, however, children under 5 and young adults are also at higher risk.) Another common risk factor for all leukemia is previous exposure to radiation, chemotherapy, and certain chemicals including benzene, Agent Orange, and pesticides.

Other risk factors include:

  • Race and ethnicity. Being white increases the risk for ALL; people with North American or European ethnicities tend to be at greater risk for CLL.
  • Smoking, which has been linked to an increased risk of AML, ALL, and MDS.
  • Viral infections such as the Epstein-Barr virus that causes mononucleosis has been linked to AML and ALL.
  • Genetics. People with certain inherited blood disorders or Down syndrome have a greater risk for AML and ALL. A small portion of CLL cases are also inherited or related to family history.


Aside from quitting smoking, avoiding chemical exposures, and keeping the immune system healthy by eating a well-balanced diet and exercising, it is not possible to prevent leukemia.