Leukaemia, chronic lymphocytic 


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Media last reviewed: 14/11/2013

Next review due: 14/11/2015

Leukaemia is cancer of the white blood cells. Chronic leukaemia tends to progress slowly over the course of many years.

Normal white blood cells contribute to the body's defence against infection. Chronic leukaemia is classified according to the type of white blood cells affected by cancer. There are two main types:

  • chronic lymphocytic leukaemia 
  • chronic myeloid leukaemia 

These pages focus on chronic lymphocytic leukaemia, which affects a type of white blood cell called lymphocytes.

On this site you can also find information on chronic myeloid leukamia.

Warning signs of chronic leukaemia

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

  • repeated infections (that occur over a short space of time)
  • tiredness
  • breathlessness
  • weakness
  • swollen lymph nodes (glands) 

Read more information about the symptoms of chronic lymphocytic leukaemia.

What happens in chronic leukaemia

All of the blood cells in the 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 of a particular type of white blood cell at the expense of normal bone marrow cells.

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.

Also, as the white blood cells are not properly formed, they are less effective at fighting bacteria and viruses, making you more vulnerable to infection.

How common is chronic lymphocytic leukaemia?

Chronic leukaemia is relatively common type of cancer. About 2,400 people in the UK are diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia each year.

Chronic lymphocytic leukaemia is more common in older people, with most cases developing in people over the age of 55.

It can be cured using a bone marrow transplant. However, this is dependent on the age of the patient (transplantation carries too many risks for more elderly patients) and finding a suitable donor.


The outlook for patients with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia varies depending on the stage of the cancer at diagnosis and how well the patient responds to treatment.

For the majority of patients, a diagnosis of chronic lymphocytic leukaemia does not mean that treatment is required immediately.

Read more information about the treatment of chronic lymphocytic leukaemia.

There are some cases where chronic lymphocytic leukaemia does not affect a person's natural life span.

Page last reviewed: 06/06/2012

Next review due: 06/06/2014


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