When you're told that you have cancer, it's natural to wonder what may have
caused the disease. No one knows the exact causes of leukemia. Doctors
seldom know why one person gets leukemia and another doesn't. However,
research shows that certain risk factors increase the chance that a person
will get this disease.
The risk factors may be different for the different types of leukemia:
- Radiation: People exposed to very high levels of radiation are
much more likely than others to get acute myeloid leukemia, chronic myeloid
leukemia, or acute lymphocytic leukemia.
- Atomic bomb explosions: Very
high levels of radiation have been caused by atomic bomb explosions (such as
those in Japan during World War II). People, especially children, who
survive atomic bomb explosions are at increased risk of leukemia.
- Radiation therapy: Another source of exposure to high levels of
radiation is medical treatment for cancer and other conditions. Radiation
therapy can increase the risk of leukemia.
- Diagnostic x-rays: Dental
x-rays and other diagnostic x-rays (such as CT scans) expose people to much
lower levels of radiation. It's not known yet whether this low level of
radiation to children or adults is linked to leukemia. Researchers are
studying whether having many x-rays may increase the risk of leukemia. They
are also studying whether CT scans during childhood are linked with
increased risk of developing leukemia.
- Smoking: Smoking cigarettes increases the risk of acute myeloid
- Benzene: Exposure to benzene in the workplace can cause acute myeloid
leukemia. It may also cause chronic myeloid leukemia or acute lymphocytic
leukemia. Benzene is used widely in the chemical industry. It's also found in
cigarette smoke and gasoline.
- Chemotherapy: Cancer patients treated with certain types of
cancer-fighting drugs sometimes later get acute myeloid leukemia or acute
lymphocytic leukemia. For example, being treated with drugs known as alkylating
agents or topoisomerase inhibitors is linked with a small chance of later
developing acute leukemia.
- Down syndrome and certain other inherited diseases: Down syndrome and
certain other inherited diseases increase the risk of developing acute leukemia.
- Myelodysplastic syndrome and certain other blood disorders: People
with certain blood disorders are at increased risk of acute myeloid leukemia.
- Human T-cell leukemia virus type I (HTLV-I): People with HTLV-I
infection are at increased risk of a rare type of leukemia known as adult T-cell
leukemia. Although the HTLV-I virus may cause this rare disease, adult T-cell
leukemia and other types of leukemia are not contagious.
- Family history of leukemia: It's rare for more than one person in a
family to have leukemia. When it does happen, it's most likely to involve
chronic lymphocytic leukemia. However, only a few people with chronic
lymphocytic leukemia have a father, mother, brother, sister, or child who also
has the disease.
Having one or more risk factors does not mean that a person
will get leukemia. Most people who have risk factors never develop the disease.
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