Leukemia is a cancer that starts in the organs that make blood, namely the bone marrow (the soft inner part of the bone) and the lymph system. In leukemia, abnormal and immature white blood cells are produced in the bone marrow and lymph system. The immature white blood cells are called leukocytes.
The exact cause of leukemia is unknown.
Smoking is considered a risk factor for leukemia, as for other cancers, but many people who have leukemia never smoked, and many people who smoke never get leukemia.
Long-term exposure to chemicals such as benzene or formaldehyde, typically in the workplace, is considered a risk factor for leukemia, but this accounts for relatively few cases of the disease.
Exposure to extraordinarily high doses of radiation is a risk factor, although this accounts for relatively few cases of leukemia. Doses of radiation used for diagnostic imaging such as x-rays and CT scans are nowhere near as high as the doses needed to cause leukemia.
Other risk factors for leukemia include the following: Previous chemotherapy: Drugs called alkylating agents used to treatment certain types of cancers are linked to development of leukemia later. Human T-cell leukemia virus 1 (HTLV-1): Infection with this virus is linked to human T-cell leukemia. Myelodysplastic syndrome: This blood disorder increases the risk of acute myelogenous leukemia. Down syndrome and other genetic diseases: Some diseases caused by abnormal chromosomes may increase risk for leukemia. Family history: Having a first-degree relative (parent, brother, sister, or child) who has chronic lymphocytic leukemia increases your risk of having the disease by as much as 4 times that of someone who does not have an affected relative.
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