Leukaemia, chronic myeloid 


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Leukaemia is cancer of the white blood cells. Chronic leukaemia means the condition progresses slowly over the course of many years.

Chronic leukaemia is classified according to the type of white blood cells that are affected by cancer. There are two main types:

  • lymphocytes - mostly used to fight viral infections
  • myeloid cells - which perform a number of different functions, such as fighting bacterial infections, defending the body against parasites and preventing the spread of tissue damage

These pages focus on chronic myeloid leukaemia, which is cancer of the myeloid cells. The following other types of leukaemia are covered elsewhere:

Warning signs of chronic myeloid leukaemia

In its early stages, chronic myeloid leukaemia usually causes no noticeable symptoms. As the condition develops, symptoms include:

  • tiredness 
  • weight loss 
  • night sweats
  • a feeling of bloating
  • bruising 
  • bone pain 

Read more about the symptoms of chronic myeloid leukaemia

What happens in chronic leukaemia

All of the blood cells in your body are produced by bone marrow. Bone marrow is a spongy material found inside the bones. It is important because it produces special cells called stem cells.

Stem cells are very useful because they have the ability to create other specialised cells that carry out important functions. The stem cells in bone marrow produce three important types of blood cells:

  • red blood cells - which carry oxygen around the body
  • white blood cells - which help fight infection
  • platelets - which help stop bleeding

In leukaemia, the cancer begins in the stem cells and causes them to produce more white blood cells than are needed. Over time, the cancerous white blood cells build up, disrupting the normal balance of cells in the blood.

This means that the body does not have enough red blood cells or platelets. This can cause symptoms of anaemia, such as tiredness, as well as increasing the likelihood of excessive bleeding.

How common is chronic myeloid leukaemia?

Chronic leukaemia is an uncommon type of cancer. About 600 people in the UK are diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukaemia each year.

Chronic myeloid leukaemia can affect people of any age, but it is more common in people aged 40-60. There is no evidence that it runs in families.


The outlook for chronic myeloid leukaemia depends to a large extent on how well a person responds to medication.

Most patients (60-65%) do really well on imatinib tablets, which are taken every day for life.

For those who don't do well on imatinib, about half respond to one of the alternative drugs (nilotinib or dasatinib or bosutinib).

Those who fail these drugs or cannot tolerate them will be offered ponatinib or a bone marrow transplant.

Read more about the Treatment of chronic myeloid leukaemia.

Page last reviewed: 24/05/2012

Next review due: 24/05/2014


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