Find Information About:

Drugs & Supplements

Get information and reviews on prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, vitamins, and supplements. Search by name or medical condition.

Pill Identifier

Pill Identifier

Having trouble identifying your pills?

Enter the shape, color, or imprint of your prescription or OTC drug. Our pill identification tool will display pictures that you can compare to your pill.

Get Started

My Medicine

Save your medicine, check interactions, sign up for FDA alerts, create family profiles and more.

Get Started

WebMD Health Experts and Community

Talk to health experts and other people like you in WebMD's Communities. It's a safe forum where you can create or participate in support groups and discussions about health topics that interest you.

  • Second Opinion

    Second Opinion

    Read expert perspectives on popular health topics.

  • Community


    Connect with people like you, and get expert guidance on living a healthy life.

Got a health question? Get answers provided by leading organizations, doctors, and experts.

Get Answers

Sign up to receive WebMD's award-winning content delivered to your inbox.

Sign Up

Leukemia & Lymphoma

Font Size

Understanding Leukemia -- the Basics

What Causes Leukemia?

No one knows exactly what causes leukemia. Certain chromosome abnormalities have been associated with leukemia, but they do not cause it. For example, virtually all people with chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) and some with acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) have an abnormal chromosome known as the Philadelphia Chromosome in their white blood cells and bone marrow. As with other leukemia types, the chromosome abnormality is an acquired abnormality; it is neither inherited nor passed on to one's children.

Genetic disorders associated with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) include Down syndrome, Bloom syndrome, Fanconi anemia, or immune deficiency disorders such as Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome and ataxia-telangectasia. In addition, at least one virus in the same family as the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) has been associated with a rare form of the disease -- the HTLV-1 virus.

Environmental factors also seem to influence the risk of developing leukemia. Tobacco smokers are more prone to certain leukemias. Research also suggests that prolonged exposure to radiation, various chemicals in home and work environments -- such as petroleum products -- and non-ionizing radiation is associated with leukemia.

Leukemia is also a rare complication of chemotherapy and radiation therapy used to treat other cancers. The risk of leukemia depends upon the types of chemotherapy drugs used. The risk of developing acute leukemia is greatest in persons who have received both chemotherapy and radiation. This factor is most commonly associated with prior treatment for breast cancer, Hodgkin's lymphoma, and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Other prior cancers associated with the development of acute leukemia are myeloma, testicular cancer, and sarcoma.

Ionizing radiation such as from nuclear explosion exposure, uranium and uranium dust exposure, and radon is associated with the development of leukemia.

Family history is a risk factor for leukemia as well. For example, if an identical twin develops ALL there is a 20% chance the other twin will develop it within a year. After a year, the risk then falls off to the same risk as non-identical twins, but still remains five times that of the general population.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Sujana Movva, MD on March 15, 2015
1 | 2

Today on WebMD

stem cells
What are they and why do we need them?
Lung cancer xray
See it in pictures, plus read the facts.
sauteed cherry tomatoes
Fight cancer one plate at a time.
Ovarian cancer illustration
Do you know the symptoms?
Vitamin D
New Treatments For Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma
Lifestyle Tips for Depression Slideshow
Pets Improve Your Health